If I Had Your Face

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Frances Cha
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Apr. 2020 (read Jan. 2022 on Audible)

If I Had Your Face has been on my radar since it was nominated in the Goodreads Choice Awards in 2020, but a year later I felt like I suddenly started seeing it pop up everywhere, so I decided to listen to the audiobook while puzzling one weekend. I ended up listening to the whole thing in just 2 days!

As with most audiobooks with multiple character perspectives, I did find it a little challenging to keep track of all the characters at the beginning. I wasn’t sure if the four women featured were all connected with one another and it was hard for me to keep the protagonists straight from the side characters (because I kept expecting some of the side characters in the early chapters to also be protagonists). But I made a few references to the synopsis and eventually I was able to sort everyone out.

I really liked this book. I can see how it won’t be for everyone. Some of the characters are kind of polarizing and this is a really different perspective from what you get in a lot of mainstream literature. White people (and I’m including myself in this) – you probably aren’t going to have a lot of reference for some of the content of this book, which for me made it a bit unrelatable, but was ultimately why I enjoyed it so much. That’s the benefit of having access to all sorts of stories from all over the world. This gave me a perspective I definitely didn’t have before. I honestly felt at times like I was reading dystopian fantasy with all the talk of changing faces and I appreciate that this broadened my world view.

If I Had Your Face is set in South Korea and focuses on 4 women living in the same apartment building. Some of them know each other and are friends and they flit in and out of each others lives. Ara works in a hair salon while supporting her friend through extensive cosmetic surgery and fantasizing about meeting her favourite K-Pop band. Kyuri has already had cosmetic surgery to transform her face and works in a “room salon”, entertaining business men to pay off the debt for her surgeries. Miho is classically beautiful and works as an artist after studying abroad in New York. And Wonna is a young mother-to-be struggling to decide what to do about her upcoming maternity leave.

The author covers a lot of ground in a short period of time and I liked that she explores so many different perspectives. Wonna’s storyline felt a bit out of place compared to the others since she was the only one who didn’t really know the other women, but I thought her perspective was just as interesting and brought something different to the table. Beauty and sexism are key themes in the novel and I LOVE the title of this book and how well it ties into the story, because I think “if I had your face” really captures the entire essence of this book. Every single one of these women is chasing after some kind of ideal and it hasn’t made any of them happy.

I know people have cosmetic surgery all over the world, but it’s not really something that’s talked about in any meaningful way rather than to be dismissive about it. For Kyuri, changing her face was a way to chase a better life for herself, while also keeping her more entrapped than even. I thought that the room salon would be a rather shameful place, yet here’s Ara’s roommate, saving up to change her face so that she can have the opportunity to work in one! Then there’s Miho, who is already classically beautiful. She has the envy of her friends that she doesn’t need to change her face and that she has the privilege to make art (something she loves) and get paid for it. Yet Miho is unhappy too and mistreated by her boyfriend.

Wonna gives us one more perspective of life after marriage, yet even with a husband, she struggles to get pregnant and then faces terrible discrimination at her work. It’s almost like if you’re a woman, who can’t win. And that is kind of the point in a lot of the world isn’t it. Wonna reminded me a bit of Kim Jiyoung, which is another novel that came out of South Korea and examines the sexism women face on a daily basis.

If I had one complaint about this book, it would be that it’s not long enough. I rarely say that about any book, if anything I think a lot of books are longer than they need to be. But for so many characters and such a short book, I don’t think the author was able to truly give each of these characters the depth they deserve. I felt like some aspects of the plot were skipped over and I wasn’t given enough context to understand all of the characters motivations. But I also appreciated that this was really just a snapshot into the lives of 4 different women. I felt a bit like a fly on the wall during a moment in time.

So don’t go into this looking for a plot driven, fully fleshed out story, but take it for what it is – a brief glimpse into the lives of each one of these fascinating women.

The Mermaid from Jeju


Rating:
⭐⭐⭐
Author: Sumi Hahn
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Dec. 2020 (read Feb. 2021)

I don’t know how I stumbled across this book, I haven’t really seen any hype about it, but as soon as I saw the title and cover I immediately went and bought myself a copy. I read Lisa See’s latest book when it came out, The Island of Sea Women, and became totally enthralled in the history of Jeju Island. It’s an island off the south coast of South Korea that has a very turbulent and interesting history.

My knowledge of island culture is still very limited after reading both books, but it seems that inhabitants of the island have very much carved out their own unique culture and customs, connected, but still separate from the rest of South Korea. In a way it reminds me of Newfoundland in that it is part of Canada, but still maintains a very distinct sense of self.

A large part of Jeju is centered around a matriarchal society, with the Haenyeo (female divers) being seen as the primary family providers and earners. The Island of Sea Women was centered entirely on the Haenyeo, so when reading that book, I did see the Haenyeo as central to Jeju culture. However upon reading The Mermaid from Jeju, I learned that Mount Hallasan also plays a large role in Jeju culture. It’s a huge mountain that supports a whole different ecosystem and plays a large role in island religion.

I’m going to leave it there because I don’t have enough knowledge to expand further, but The Mermaid from Jeju also features a Haenyeo as the main character, so I was immediately drawn to it. Between the two books, I definitely preferred Lisa See’s book, but I did like that Sumi Hahn gives a more well rounded perspective of life all over the island. Both books cover a similar time period and highlight the impact on the people of Jeju from the transition between rule by the Japanese and then the Americans. The situation further deteriorates with the introduction of communism and America’s attempts to remove the threat.

The Mermaid from Jeju is about a young Haenyeo, Junja, and how she and her family are impacted by the arrival of the Americans. Junja has her entire life before her. She is a proud Haenyeo, diving with both her mother and grandmother, and meets a boy on the mountain, Suwol, with whom she becomes fast friends. But as violence spreads across the island, her family is torn apart and she must make difficult decisions.

While I did enjoy this book, I really struggled with the plot. I don’t need to have a well defined plot to enjoy a book – often some of the best books have meandering plots, but I felt like in this book I struggled with not having enough information. There’s a lot going on with Suwol and Junja’s grandmother and I found it really difficult to follow what was going on. I had some background from reading Lisa See’s book, but I think some readers may struggle with keeping track of the history of what is actually happening here. The plot jumps around a lot with little context.

Then in the second half of the book the structure makes a big shift. I understand why the author did this and I eventually did get into this new story, but I found the shift very jarring and it really disrupted the flow of the storytelling for me. It’s difficult to be at a high point in a book and then to have to very quickly shift gears to a low stakes storyline, before returning again to the original story. It just really didn’t work for me, nor did the ambiguous storytelling with the reader not being entirely sure who the new narrator is.

What I did find really interesting was the theme of ghosts. It features more heavily in the second half of the novel and I didn’t give it too much thought until I read the author’s note. The author is Korean, but grew up in America. I don’t think her family is from Jeju, but apparently she has been haunted by ghosts herself and it was these experiences that inspired the story. She visited Jeju and conducted several years of research before publishing this book.

So overall I was intrigued with the story, but it was also evident to me that this was a debut novel. I think the author had a lot of ideas, and good ones, but the story was lacking in focus and execution. I just felt the whole thing needed a little more direction, like the author had too many ideas and just didn’t know how to pull them all together, or cut ideas where they didn’t fit. I needed a bit more context than was provided and the first and second parts of the book just read like different novels. The time I spent investing in the characters and plot of the first half just ended up feeling wasted.

That said, I won’t be deterred from reading more from this author in the future, but I’d recommend picking up The Island Sea Women first over this one.

The Island of Sea Women

Rating: 
Author: Lisa See
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub date: Mar. 5, 2019 (read Jan. 2019)

I read The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane back in 2017 and really liked it. I’ve been meaning to read some more of Lisa See’s work ever since, but the content is quite heavy, so I keep putting it off. So when I received an early copy of The Island of Sea Women from Simon and Schuster Canada, I was excited to finally read another one of Lisa’s books!

I clearly need to prioritize reading some of her earlier works because I liked this just as much as I like the Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, maybe more!! The Island of Sea Women is about a matrifocal community of female divers on Jeju Island. Jeju Island is a large volcanic island located to the south of South Korea. It was under the control of the Japanese until the end of WWII, when it was taken over by the Americans.

What’s interesting about the island and many of its communities, is that they are mostly focused on women. Many of the traditional gender structures still exist in that men own property, the ownership is passed down through the male line, and giving birth to boys is valued because only boys can attend school and perform ancestor worship. However, the women are viewed as the providers and decision makers and the men stay home and raise the children. This is because it is the women on the island who become Haenyeo. Haenyeo are a collective of divers who are widely respected. They row offshore every day to dive in the frigid ocean for sea-life to feed their family and to sell to wealthy Japanese colonizers. The most prized catch is the abalone, but they also dive for sea urchins, octopus, squid, and other species.

See focuses her story on Young-sook. Young-sook is the daughter of a Haenyeo chief, so she learns to dive from an early age and develops a very close friendship with another girl in the community, Mi-ja. The two girls are inseparable and both join the Haenyeo collective when they come of age and travel together as young women to do leave-home diving work. However, as they grow older, their friendship is challenged and circumstances arise to drive a wedge between the two women. This book tells Young-sook’s life story, her friendship with Mi-ja, and the sad history of Jeju Island.

I was really interested in the Haenyeo culture and how they work together as a collective. I thought it was fascinating the ways that traditional gender roles were sometimes switched in this culture, but remained similar in other ways. I find diving to be fascinating (and terrifying) and I really liked learning about the Haenyeo traditions, how they would organize and dive together, and how resilient these women are. But what I really loved about this book was the way it also takes us through South Korea’s history.

I read Min Jin Lee’s book, Pachinko, last year and really liked it. It’s about a Korean family that immigrates to Japan and the challenges they faced there as immigrants. It was a good introduction the the history between Korea and Japan. This book also focuses on that conflict, but from a different angle and perspective; between the two books I learned a lot about Korea and Japan. The history covered in this book is upsetting to be sure, but it is a very good look at how Western countries can tear other countries apart in their own political disputes. Korea was split at the end of WWII, to be governed by the Soviet Union in the North and America in the South. Russia obviously promoted communism and America, democracy.

As everyone knows, American’s were extremely threatened by the rise of communism. I’m still not super familiar with Korea’s history, but from this book, it seems that there was support for communism on Jeju Island, which created conflict between the island and the rest of the Korean mainland. Rebel groups popped up among the mountain tribes on Jeju Island and fighting ensued between rebel groups and the authorities. Korea had a culture of guilt by association, whereby if a member of your family committed a crime, you were considered tainted by association. This resulted in consequential killings in which families and entire communities might be punished for the actions of an individual. The Jeju uprising officially began on April 3, 1948, and resulted in the destruction of many villages and left many people homeless.

I’ll admit, I know very little about Korea’s history, but I loved learning about it from Young-sook’s point of view. The people of Jeju had always had a tumultuous relationship with the Japanese and she observed that little changed within their communities with the end of WWII and that their power mostly just changed hands between the Japanese and the Americans. Young-sook observes that they have always been oppressed, but that Korean’s always looked after one another. However, because of differing ideologies between a democratic and communist state, she was upset to see Korean’s start to turn on one another.

From this setting, we also see how the Haenyeo were forced to change and adapt over the years and the impact the conflict had on their diving activities. The Haenyeo are still very popular, but more as a tourist attraction. The birth of daughters was also celebrated on Jeju as it ensured the financial stability of the family. However, very few girls are training to become Haenyeo these days and the collective has greatly aged, with few young women to take their places. I loved how See balances the challenges and changes to the collective along with the changing and increasingly challenging political climate on the island. It also linked in with Young-sook’s changing relationship with Mi-ja. While the novel takes us through 70 years of Korean history, at it’s core, it is a story about friendship and forgiveness.

As much as I loved this book, I do have one criticism, which is what brought my rating down from 5 stars to 4 stars. The story is told in 5 parts and progresses pretty naturally through time. However, each part starts with a flash forward to 2008. While I see some value in the 2008 timeline, I think it would have worked better as a short epilogue focused on remembering the April 3 incident and finding peace. I did not like the inclusion of Clara in the story. While Young-sook struggles with her feelings and forgiveness throughout the second half of the novel, I felt this last storyline came too late in the story and timeline. Personally, I thought the ending felt forced and manipulative. I felt like the author was trying to manipulate me into this cathartic moment at the end, but the catharsis was too late in coming and not believable to me.

Despite the ending, I still loved this book. Though the story focuses on Young-sook, I loved the exploration of Mi-ja’s story as well. The history and decisions of some of the characters were upsetting, culminating at the April 3 incident. However, I felt that they demonstrated how things can change in an instant and how in life and death situations, what might have been a well-meaning action or decision can be interpreted in the aftermath. It’s a somber realization, but it was the defining moment of Young-sook and Mi-ja’s relationship. I would definitely recommend this book.

The Island of Sea Women will be available for purchase in stores on Mar. 5th, 2019. Thanks to Scribner and Simon and Schuster Canada for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.