If I Had Your Face is an amazing window into the lives of the girls and women living in Seoul. I fell in love with the characters, for all their quirks, ambitions and eccentricities, and learnt so much about South Korean culture. It’s a fascinating place and I had no idea about “room salons” or the economic struggles before reading this book. This is an amazing debut and I can’t wait to see what Cha comes up with next!
The book is about four young women who are struggling to survive in contemporary Seoul. Kyuri is an exquisitely beautiful woman who has worked hard and had many surgeries to get into the “top 10%” – the best room salons in the country – but whose position is threatened after she becomes over-attached to one of her clients. Her housemate, Miho is an orphan who won a scholarship to a prestigious art school in New York, but struggles as she is surrounded by Korean elite. Their neighbour, Wonna, is pregnant but cannot see how she and her husband can afford to raise a child. Further down the hall is Ara, a hair stylist completely infatuated with a K-Pop star.
If I Had Your Face is the story of these women and how the patriarchal leaning and the hyper-competitive of Seoul makes it almost impossible for them to survive. It’s such an interesting read and I simply can’t recommend it enough!
A bit about room salons
So-called “room salons” have always been a curious aspect of South Korean culture. The country is often quoted as priding itself on being a country of high moral standing, but the continuing tolerance of room salons seems to contrast with this greatly. Room salons are bars where business men pay to drink with young and beautiful Korean women, and are used as a way of building up professional relationships. Groups of men usually book ahead and when they arrive the women are lined up and the men get to pick their choice companions for the evening.
Prostitution has been criminalised in Korea since 2004, however it has persisted, with some business executives even charging it to their company card according to Forbes and women often offer prostitution services to the clients they encounter in the room salons. Girls are often tempted to join the room salons because of the high cost of living in Seoul and the opportunity to earn a significantly higher wage than they might receive elsewhere. However, these girls have to achieve insanely high beauty standards, often going into debt to have pricey and painful plastic surgeries.
This wonderful novel spans generations and combines the power of 12 startling voices to share the experiences of British women of color. Mainly set in London we hear the story of a proud black lesbian playwright, her sassy super-feminist daughter and a sexually fluid millennial, just to name a couple.
It’s Black History Month in the UK and I decided this year I should finally get round to reading some of those incredible stories that I haven’t quite made time for yet.
I can definitely see why this books is a bit love it or hate it. The story of Dexter and Em is given to us in snapshots, Starting from their meeting at uni up to their late 30s, the book oozes sexual tension, but with an increasingly dark edge which reminded me of Sally Rooney’s novels.