South Korea is believed to have the highest plastic surgery rates in the world, with a third of women thought to have gone under the knife by 30. Eyelid surgery and jaw slimming are among the most popular procedures, and improving physical appearance isn’t just vanity – it’s an openly recognised way to get ahead in a cut-throat job market.
This makes a grimly fascinating background for Brooklyn-based Frances Cha’s vivid debut. She knows whereof she writes: she worked as travel and culture editor for CNN in Seoul, and If I Had Your Face follows four young women navigating life in this brutally competitive, consumerist city.
The “painfully plastic” Kyuri is a room salon girl: a seemingly well-paid opportunity only open to the “prettiest 10%”, where clients treat their favourite escorts to designer bags. In reality, Kyuri is tied in by debt, and feels her primped body breaking down thanks to the heavy nightly drinking required. She shares an apartment with Miho, an artist who, after winning a scholarship to the US, became embroiled with a hyper-wealthy crowd; Cha’s descriptions of their lifestyles dazzle, although it’s no shock that such grotesque riches don’t result in kind behaviour.
Across the hallway is Ara, a mute hairdresser who tries to escape her daily grind – along with the trauma of an assault and her parents’ fixation with marriage – by obsessing over a K-pop star. Downstairs, mother-to-be Wonna, whose choice of husband was entirely based on his mother being dead (a stinging insight into traditionally toxic mother/daughter-in-law relationships), panics about losing her baby and her job.
It occasionally feels like Cha lines up the relentless, contradictory pressures women face in South Korea in order to inflict them one by one. But her writing always crackles: it’s gripping as well as grisly, and flashes of real friendship and solidarity amid Seoul’s neon glare are more touching for being an enormous relief. A compelling, icily cool exposé of the unceasing quest for self-advancement when the economic odds are stacked against you.
• If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha is published by Viking (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15