This time last year, I was in Seoul, mesmerised by streets upon winding streets of bustling beauty stores in Myeong-dong. I spent a whole day wandering skincare shops, buying sheet masks, serums and acids to take home and put on my face. The Korean beauty industry is unrivalled, and I remain in awe of anyone with an 18 step skincare routine. I am struggling to think of more than five possible steps.
Seoul is also the cosmetic surgery capital of the world, with around a third of women having some kind of surgical procedure before they’re 30. South Korea now has among the lowest marriage and birth rates in the world, and an economy getting wealthier by the day. Though traditional roles for young women in South Korea are changing, they still have some catching up to do. It makes for a competitive landscape.
Set in Seoul (with a brief foray to New York, where Cha now lives), Frances Cha’s debut novel If I Had Your Face (out on the 26th July) is, on the surface, a novel about the impossible beauty standards of South Korea, and about the women affected by them. Scratch just a bit beneath the surface, though, and it’s a novel about social mobility (or the lack thereof), South Korea’s strict class system, and social structures.
The novel centres around the lives of five women living in the same apartment building, and the narration switches between four of them. Kyuri is a sex worker who has propelled herself into a high-class ‘room salon’ but has no way of paying off the surgery debts that got her there; Miho, her flatmate, has won a scholarship to an art school in New York; in another apartment, K-Pop obsessive Ara works as a hairstylist, and spends her time devising ways to meet her popstar idol; and married Wonna is worried how she and her husband will afford the child she’s pregnant with when they can barely get by themselves.
Cha’s protagonists are complex and compelling; all of them come from difficult backgrounds, and all of them see cosmetic surgery (or, more accurately, the possibilities that come with cosmetic surgery) as a way out. The perfect face offers ways to make money, and money offers a better life, though you need money to get the face in the first place.
This is a character driven novel, and Cha offers glimpses of these womens’ lives; just a slice of each. The men throughout the novel are consistently terrible (although, at times, so are the women), and the constant misogyny is a bleak read in parts. But these are characters who live harshly, and they aren’t given unrealistic, tidy stories. They’re vivid, and the city they struggle in is portrayed in bright, living, colour. Cha writes these women, and the world they inhabit, beautifully, and they stayed fully formed in my head for a while after I finished reading.
If I Had Your Face is published in the UK on 23rd July by Viking
Terri-Jane Dow is the editor of Severine, and a writer based in London. You can find her on instagram @terri_jane.