Title:If I Had Your Face
Writer: Frances Cha
Publishing House: Penguin Books (UK)
Date of Publication: April 23rd 2020
Rating: 5 stars
”In the original story, the little mermaid endures unspeakable pain to gain her human legs. The Sea Witch warns her that her new feet will feel as if she is walking on whetter blades, but she will be able to dance like no human has ever danced before. And so she drinks the witch’s potion, which slices through her body like a sword.”
Seoul, South Korea. Four women try to make ends meet in a society that has raised them with unattainable expectations, corrupted aspirations and images they have to fulfill. Ara has fallen in love with a K-Pop singer, her obsession adding up to her personal ordeal. Miho tries to balance her upbringing and her New York experiences while dealing with her intense feelings for a handsome womanizer. Wonna struggles to fulfill the expectation of being a mother. Kyuri falls prey to her lust for beauty and money and sacrifices her body and, more importantly, her sanity and dignity. But what else is there to do in a reality that worships plastic surgery, financial superiority and ridiculous, fake pop icons?
Frances Cha writes with clarity and honesty and allows hints of satire, albeit acute and a little morbid. She comments on a set of rules that has to be obeyed, in a system that comes young female souls away, convincing them that they MUST act as everyone -and especially men- expect them to. Beauty and money are brutally connected to each other, it has always been a reality for most women in all cultures throughout the ages. In this novel, we see this bond in its most extreme version. You have to make money, to put it simply and clearly. You have to make men fall in love with you. Therefore, you need the perfect face according to the pop-star standards. And plastic surgery is the means to an end.
With money comes exploitation and the feeling you can manipulate others as others manipulate you. Sex becomes a weapon of persuasion and a means for the elite to achieve its goals. And when you fall in love, society has already fed you with despair so you become obsessed. More and more, faster and faster. Nothing remains untouched, even motherhood is contaminated. If you don’t want children, you are an abomination. If you can’t raise them, you become a walking guilt. Cha depicts an immense, impossible indifference and absolute cruelty behind the shiny facade.
However, the camaraderie between women is an escape, a haven where minds can be unburdened and hearts can be made lighter through shared feelings, even for a while. The voices of the four main characters are distinctive, their thoughts seamlessly communicated to the reader, as we try to understand them and their motives and choices. My favourite character was Miho. She was the restless spirit, the one whose horizons were broadened through Art but her soft heart was there to threaten her.
Ι’ve said it again and again. South Korean Literature is a mystery, a treasure, an enigma to be decoyed with each book. If I Had Your Face is no exception. It is real and through-provoking, an unsettling call to consider our views on social status, ”idols” and a worldwide industry that wants us beautiful, willing and silent. It is one of the best novels of the year.
”The raindrops keep falling, more thickly now. So we all stand up to make our way upstairs together, as the sky starts crackling, taking aim at each of us and the drunk men stumbling by.”
Many thanks to Penguin Books UK and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.