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Korea Blog: Frances Cha’s “If I Had Your Face,” The Great Korean Plastic Surgery Novel

When first learning Korean in Los Angeles, I went to a Koreatown bookstore in search of simple reading material. There I picked up the first volume in a long-running a series of illustrated books for children called Happy World (행복한 세상). Its short, fable-like stories turned out to be united only by what struck me as an often thoroughgoing sadness, their titular world populated mainly by neglected children, impoverished students, downtrodden mothers and fathers, and crippled elders. “Oh, I know exactly what this means,” said a Korean friend to whom I showed the opening of one such tale, which simply introduced its young characters, a young brother and sister living in a mountain village with their maternal grandmother. “Their mother probably died in a factory accident, then their father drank himself to death, then the rest of the family was too ashamed to take them in…”

This implied history of misfortune could go on. Even then, film and literature in translation had already shown me that “every Korean story is a tragedy” — which, if not literally true, at times feels practically true. Observers of Korea thus often find themselves tempted to reference the concept of han, the deep-seated set of negative feelings defined as uniquely Korean. So do some Koreans: in Frances Cha’s new novel If I Had Your Face, one character remembers hearing that her grandmother “had choked to death on han — the pent-up rage from all the pillaged generations before her — seeing her parents die before her eyes, having served her mother-in-law as a body slave until she aged long before her time.” Though life has gone rather better for the speaker and the book’s other principals, all young women in 21st-century Seoul, theirs remains an unhappy world.

Narrative duty rotates between four of these women, all of whom live in the same humble apartment building, the gray “Color House.” Ara, rendered mute by incident whose nature Cha holds for the end of the book, spends her days working as a hairdresser and her nights obsessing over a pop singer. Kyuri, having undergone myriad cosmetic-surgery procedures (“the stitches on her double eyelids look naturally faint, while her nose is raised, her cheekbones tapered, and her entire jaw realigned and shaved into a slim v-line”), has worked her way up to employment at a “room salon” that pays her to drink with and fawn over big-spending male clients. Miho, she of the han-choked grandmother, is an artist not long returned from studying abroad in New York. Married and pregnant, the thirty-something Wonna observes the “girls” living on the floor above her with a mixture of concern and envy.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.