(Buy it on Bookshop HERE.)
I feel so many ways about this book. Let me start by saying that this is not an enjoyable read at all, but it is important. It isn’t dramatic, but it is realistic. And it isn’t entertaining, but it is necessary, I think. ⠀
Kim Ji-Young was the most common baby girl’s name in Korea in 1982. Fittingly, the protagonist of this book is a very ordinary Korean woman. She’s a 33-year-old former marketer, well-married with a one-year-old daughter and a fairly pleasant, stable life. However, one day she starts channeling the voices and personalities of other women and her concerned husband takes her to a psychiatrist, who dutifully records her life history. If that story formed the bulk of the book it would be great, but instead, the narrative is mostly a very dry recital of Ji-Young’s childhood and coming of age up to the point of her breakdown. It’s stultifyingly normal, but there are moments that any woman can relate to–being forced to tolerate the bullying of little boys in school, being blamed for unwanted attention from men, the difficulties of moving up in the professional world and the thousand small irritations that come from marrying a well-meaning but basic man in a world determined to favor him over you. While there are a lot of Korea-specific cultural references, Ji-Young really is an everywoman and I’ve had many similar experiences to hers, even though I was born a year earlier and literally half a world (and another culture) away. One thing that resonated with me that a lot of book bloggers are assuming is Korea-specific were the scenes involving Ji-Young’s parents favoring her younger brother over her and her older sister. Miles away, at around the same time, my younger sister and I both had the same worries when our mother had a baby boy. Family jury’s out on whether or not she ever favored him, but the cultural framework was there for me, at the age of seven or eight, to talk to my mother about it with all the gravity I could muster up at that stage of development.
However, despite the familiarity of her experiences, Ji-Young herself is nearly impossible for me to relate to. She has an infuriating lack of agency and inner thought–she’s a perfect victim and it’s only her privilege as a member of a stable family who support her financially that keeps her life from being far, far, worse. I found myself frustrated by how safe and protected she actually was and how little she did with that foundation. She’s a flabby marshmallow of a woman who goes along with everything that happens to her and comes out far better than a lot of women do despite that. This is only highlighted by the fact that most of the other women in the story–her mother, her sister, her first boss–all have much more developed, layered personalities, in my opinion. ⠀
This book is important, and I get that. It speaks to a nation, a gender, and a generation. But in the end, its dry style and meticulous footnotes on gender inequality seem to reach a rather cold conclusion–that women should be treated better because it’s good for the economy and social logistics, not because we are also living breathing human beings with minds and hearts and desires of our own. I recognized Ji-Young’s struggle, but through her story neither she nor I see any way forward for women in society. Fortunately, this is just a book and there are in fact ways to claim agency and equity as a woman in the world, but this book certainly doesn’t approach any of them. ⠀
A final note about the English translation of this book. I read the original Korean and the English simultaneously and can’t help but hope for a good clean re-edit for the next printing. The dialogue is strangely slangified in some places, the choices of which cultural points to explain over others is rather peculiar at times, and there’s a lack of attention to small details–for example, a few names have their syllables transposed–that shocked me. It speaks to the overall style of the original novel though, that none of these gaffes change the overall sense of the work, only muddling the details. ⠀
A few final notes; this book was made into a film in 2019. I haven’t seen it yet, but if the trailer is any indication, it’s gone a long way to make Ji-Young and her blandly progressive husband much more sympathetic human beings(which is what happens when you cast A-list actors, I suppose.)
And finally, if you find yourself wanting to read this book, consider doing so in a way that supports sustainability, community, and this blog–through your local library, or by ordering it from indie bookshop portal Bookshop, HERE.
(As a Bookshop affiliate, I earn a commission from all purchases at that link.)
That’s it for now, fellow readers. On to some fantasy fiction next.
3 stars and a banner of burning bras to Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982.