Read IN BED: If I Had Your Face
Words by Suyin Cavanagh
My father gave me this book during lock down last year. Being a Korean adoptee, who fortuitously landed in Bondi, Sydney Australia at the tender age of two and a half years, I was intrigued to read about my largely unfamiliar birth country.
Cha is a confident new Korean/American writer and her debut novel, If I had your Face shimmers with filmic descriptive qualities. Amidst a sometimes brutal backdrop of contemporary Seoul, we are introduced to the Korean social currencies of the times; where commodified beauty, consumerism, and family status wield power. These themes are intricately explored and woven through the lives of four complex and fascinating young women sharing an apartment block in Seoul.
These themes are intricately explored and woven through the lives of four complex and fascinating young women.
Each woman tells her story in the first person, where the chapters are segmented in a nonlinear style. To open we are swiftly dropped into the life of Ara, who moves to Seoul to study and work as a hairdresser. Mute since a teenage trauma, she escapes her daily life through a hard core fangirl obsession with K-Pop idol, Taein. Her neighbour, Kyuri, secures work as a room salon girl. Deemed electrifyingly beautiful, six evenings a week she entertains men for a living at the prestigious Ajax Salon, which involves copious drinking and where ‘extra curricular’ services are on the menu. Her ‘perfect’ looks are courtesy of multiple plastic surgeries by Dr Shim and years later she still cannot feel parts of her jaw.
Miho, an orphan, shares an apartment with Kyuri and on the surface they have little in common. A promising artist whose scholarship to study in New York exposes her to a wildly affluent, and privileged mix of Korea’s offspring living abroad. Unbeknown to Kyuri, Miho studies and documents her daily life intensely for a future sculptural series. Romantically both women become involved with men outside of their prescribed social standing, which has unforeseen consequences. Also living in the block is Wonna, a young married woman still haunted by her disturbed grandmother who raised her, and bearing the residue of a childhood accident. Wonna is intrigued by the seemingly carefree single life of her neighbours Ara, Kyuri and Miho.
The connection between the women and their enduring friendships is an uplifting thread, coupled with their desire to challenge traditional Korean customs and new cultural norms. Cha’s elegant and luminous writing infuses each woman’s story with a sense of promise. In the closing chapters as their personal stories unfold, the possibility of what freedom may look like for each woman begins to take shape