A glitteringly dark and unsettling debut novel about four young women struggling to survive in South Korea
If I Had Your Face plunges us into the mesmerizing world of contemporary Seoul – a place where extreme plastic surgery is as routine as getting a haircut, where women compete for spots in secret ‘room salons’ to entertain wealthy businessmen after hours, where K-Pop stars are the object of all-consuming obsession, and ruthless social hierarchies dictate your every move.
Navigating this hyper-competitive city are four young women balancing on the razor-edge of survival: Kyuri, an exquisitely beautiful woman whose hard-won status at an exclusive ‘room salon’ is threatened by an impulsive mistake with a client; her flatmate Miho, an orphan who wins a scholarship to a prestigious art school in New York, where her life becomes tragically enmeshed with the super-wealthy offspring of the Korean elite; Wonna, their neighbour, pregnant with a child that she and her husband have no idea how they will afford to raise in a fiercely competitive economy; and Ara, a hair stylist living down the hall, whose infatuation with a fresh-faced K-Pop star drives her to violent extremes.
*I was sent a kindle edition of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review – a big thank you to Penguin for approving me *
Trigger warnings: child abuse, violence, misogynistic language / attitudes, adult content, suicide / suicidal ideation
If I Had Your Face is an intriguing and twisted novel which delves into the darker side of life in modern day Seoul. In a society where beauty, social class and wealth is lauded above all else, we follow four young women who struggle to find their place and are bound together through circumstance. We read as they each navigate their everyday lives, trying to make ends meet while managing their own dreams and desires for a better future. This novel is own voices for korean representation.
One of the greatest strengths of this novel are the complex and well developed characters we get. I liked that we got four distinct and unique voices; Kyuri, Miho, Ara and Wonna. Kyuri is a beautiful girl who has had copious amounts of surgery to get the ideal look and works at one of the top clubs in Seoul where she entertains male patrons, night after night. Miho is a successful artist, who has explored New York and is drawn into the circle of the wealthy Korean elite abroad, and navigating a complicated relationship with one of them. Ara is mute after an accident in her youth, and now works as a hairstylist, she harbours an obsession for Taein, a KPop idol who she longs to meet. Wonna is the last and most unlikely member of the quartet, newlywed but struggling with the trauma of her childhood, she puts all her hopes in her unborn daughter.
My favourite perspectives were that of Kyuri and Miho as they each had such a compelling voice and story. It was interesting to read through Kyuris eyes and get a glimpse into the world of the ‘room salons’ and how they operate, it’s a whole world I’m so unfamiliar with so it was an eye opener for sure. I also liked reading through Mihos perspective, and imagining how her sculptural pieces and paintings would look in reality was cool. I think both of these characters appealed to me because of how different they are and their duality, but also how they banded together and managed to form a friendship despite their initial misunderstanding of each other.
As well as her characters, Frances Cha’s writing is impactful and succinct. I enjoyed the clarity of her words and the way she dealt with a multitude of topics sensitively and realistically. The prose was immersive and I couldn’t put it down, I read this novel in a day as I was so engrossed. I will say that this is a novel which is more character driven than plot driven so if you enjoy books where there’s a lot going on then this may not be the right pick for you, however if you do enjoy more character driven novels then definitely take a read, Cha does not disappoint.
I enjoyed the fact that there wasn’t a cliched fairytale ending, rather there was an ending which felt hopeful and true for who the characters are and their situations. If anything, a happy ending in the typical sense would have felt dishonest to me, given the struggles they each faced throughout the novel so I liked that the novel leaves it open ended. I like to think that they each got some semblance of peace and contentment despite the harsher realities of their lives.
Overall, If I Had Your Face is a truly original and stunning novel which I can’t recommend highly enough. It delves deep and explores some important issues whilst also presenting some complex and interesting female characters, with a supportive friendship group who I grew to really empathise for. I hope this novel and Frances Cha get all the buzz which they both undoubtedly deserve.
Until next time,