Kim Jiyoung, as the blurb on the back cover of this translated novel tells us, is every woman. Her given name is unremarkable, familiar, and of course her family name is the most common in South Korea. For this, novel, sadly, tells a story that is unremarkable in the sense that pretty much nothing in it surprises you.
It feels like the contextual background of every Korean movie or drama you’ve watched; every Korean story you’ve read. It feels like the concentrated distillation of every casual, embedded, subconscious, malicious or even misguidedly well intentioned act of sexism that you have come across in real life or in fiction.
The novel has certainly struck a chord in Korea, having sold more than a million copies, thanks in part to an endorsement by President Moon. However, while it highlights a plethora of societal issues in Korea, thus helping to explain why fewer Korean women are getting married, and why the Korean birthrate is so low, its relevance is not just to a small corner of East Asia.
The novel starts with a brief present day chapter depicting some of the strange behavioural traits of our central character. It then goes back to Jiyoung’s childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, and finally motherhood, presenting her life story with an emphasis on all the discrimination she has suffered, within her typical family, typical schooling, and typical workplace, because of her gender.
In literary style, it reads like a newspaper article or documentary, maybe even an obituary, and it is possibly none the worse for that. The style is consistent with the reality: there is absolutely nothing fantastical in Kim Jiyoung’s life. Perhaps the author hoped that, by making Jiyoung’s life as ordinary as possible, readers would accept that gender bias really does exist and can have adverse effects on mental health and indeed the economy.
The narrative depicts a series of events in Jiyoung’s unfolding life, interspersed with a scattering of socio-economic data to give context. Here’s an extreme example of the style (p70)
While the economy remained bad and college students got by with part-time work and help from parents whose job security still hung in the balance, college tuition fees (frozen during the financial crisis) climbed as if to make up for lost time. In the 2000s, the cost of college tuition increased by over twice the consumer inflation rate. 1
And yes, there really is the occasional footnote in the narrative to provide external sources, should you think it necessary, to back up some of the statistics quoted in the book. The footnotes have not been inserted for the sake of a western audience. They are there in the original; as is the somewhat workaday writing style if I’m reading correctly in between the lines of Cho Nam-joo’s interview with the JoongAng Ilbo.
The pedestrian style of the narrative undoubtedly detracts from the reading experience, but Cho Nam-joo is not writing to entertain. Nevertheless, I cannot see what a female reader would gain from the book other than a sense of solidarity or even indignation. For on every page she is likely to say to herself, “Yup, I’ve experienced that” – from being on the receiving end of unwanted advances, via being expected to do the menial tasks in the office, to having a husband offer to “help” with tedious domestic chores which should in fairness be a shared responsibility.
Amidst this catalogue of everyday sexism it comes across as somewhat surprising, almost out of place, when one of the female characters fights back. In the University Hiking Club, none of the female members are likely to be appointed President. “It’s too much work for women,” explains a male member, adding, with a somewhat patronising attempt at chivalry: “you brighten up the club with your mere presence.” To which a female member quips: “If the club needs brightening up, get a lamp.” (p78)
But any small victories are short-lived. After an awkward family get-together with her in-laws, Jiyoung’s husband apologises for not standing up for her (she had been constantly nagged for not having produced a grandchild yet, let alone a grandson). He then undoes his apology by suggesting an easy way to avoid the situation in future: “Let’s just have a kid.” (p122)
And what does a non-Korean male reader get from reading the novel? As noted above, the issues in this book are not Korea-specific. While in some respects different societies may be more equal than the Korea described in the novel, there are more than enough scenes described that will have you thinking: yes, that happens here, now. Reading the book, I was made acutely aware of my own bias over the years. I hope I have grown more enlightened with age, but it doesn’t do any harm to be reminded of the negative impact of certain attitudes.
As a work of literature, it didn’t stimulate me. It is too ordinary. It is marginally redeemed by the final brief chapter, which gives a nice twist in the tail and maybe goes some way to explain the everyday style of what has gone before. But not enough to make it a firm recommendation.
In many ways this book is like medicine: you know it’s doing you good; it just doesn’t give you much pleasure. Read it as self improvement, read it because it has caught the imagination of so many readers and because it is a talked-about book. It may help you in your relations with others. So don’t let this lukewarm review put you off. Go out and buy it.
The film adaptation will be getting a London screening on 12 May at the Barbican
- “Repeated Protests Against Tuition Increase”, Yonhap News, 6 April 2011.