‘Something was unjust and frustrating’ [book review]

A review of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo, translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang

I had read quite a lot about Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 – the third novel by South Korean writer Cho Nam-Joo, which has been taking her own country and the rest of the world by storm – but still nothing could have prepared me for the quiet yet ferocious power of this temptingly slender book. With its bright-yellow cover featuring a faceless woman set against a stylised backdrop of Seoul, it’s certainly an eye-catcher, but the sunny colour scheme is no indication of what lies within. In astonishingly simple, surgical prose, Cho slices straight to the heart of society to reveal endemic gender inequality, and she does it in a way that implicates not just South Korea, but the world as a whole.

Book cover: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

Kim Jiyoung, the novel’s main protagonist, has often been described as an everywoman. From her very name to the life she leads as a stay-at-home Seoul mother, who used to work at an advertising agency but gave up her job to care for her daughter, everything about her is ordinary. Aside from biographical events and reported conversations, we learn very little about her – thoughts and feelings, if expressed at all, are only relayed to us at considerable remove. The reason for this (and the footnotes peppering the text) is only fully revealed in the final chapter, in which we learn that we have just been reading a psychiatrist’s report on his patient, Kim Jiyoung, who was referred to him by her husband when she started displaying signs of ‘abnormal behaviour’, chiefly by mimicking other women she knows.

Kim Jiyoung is a case study, but in so much more than a fictional sense. Her behavioural quirks are never explained, but nor is this the point of the novel. It is, after all, an examination of inequality, presenting Jiyoung as the everywoman who has experienced discrimination, intimidation and unrealistic expectations every day of her life on one basis alone: her gender. As a child, she and her sister watch on as their younger brother is favoured by absolutely everyone, including their own mother (who sometimes seems to enact this injustice against her will). As a schoolgirl and student she is harassed in public, as a young woman searching for a job she is discriminated against in favour of men. As an expectant mother, there is no question that she will give up her job to raise her daughter, despite the fact that her husband seems to be a sympathetic, even relatively liberal man. As Cho gives us to understand in one of her typically cool, to-the-point sentences: ‘That’s how it had always been.’

The brilliance of Kim Jiyoung lies in this coolness, the clinical, dispassionate view Cho adopts when writing her subject. This is not a book that is built to shock: in all 160 pages, nothing really bad happens to Jiyoung. There is no violence, no trauma, no singular event after which we could describe her as a woman undone. Life continues on its established track, and not totally unpleasantly – she eventually finds a job involving work and colleagues that she likes, she marries a decent man, her parents and siblings prosper despite a few false starts, she gives birth to a healthy daughter. She even leaves her company before a hidden camera is installed (and later found) in the ladies’ toilets. And yet over the course of her life, page after narrated page, the small injustices and humiliations stack up to create an extraordinary portrayal of what it is to be a woman in South Korea today.

For a novel that doesn’t trade in emotions, I felt an extraordinary amount of rage by the time I had finished reading. It wasn’t a red-hot, burning rage fuelled by a feminist diatribe – this book is about and for women, yes, but it is equally, if not more so, written for men – but a quiet, smouldering anger at the way the world treats women. There was anger, too, at the way I perceive this treatment – because, let’s face it, none of it was particularly eye-opening. Very often I recognised myself in Jiyoung, but this was often accompanied by frustration at why she simply let these things happen to her. Why did she sit down and take the discrimination, why did she not speak up? Why did she always try to find a middle ground or appear to be walking the path of least resistance? Why, I wondered, in an echo of a question posed by the book, ‘do women simply take things upon themselves?’

This, I think, is precisely the attitude that Cho wants to uncover and question with her deeply intelligent novel. In reflecting women’s tendency to blame themselves for ‘letting’ unfair things happen, it points out the inequality complex deeply entrenched in everyone’s brains. There may have been progress in society – indeed we see it in Kim Jiyoung, helped by the footnotes – but there’s still a long way to go before we manage to step away from the attitudes that society and upbringing have instilled in us. Women do often blame themselves, and even when men think they’re being kind, holding doors open or letting the girls choose what to have for lunch, as the male students in Jiyoung’s university hiking club do, they’re still supporting inequality. Jiyoung’s friend ‘Seungyeon always said girls don’t need special treatment – they just want the same responsibilities and opportunities’. It might sound obvious, but Cho points out how this concept, at least, hasn’t yet translated into reality.

This might sound quite defeatist, and in all honesty I didn’t finish this book feeling terribly hopeful, but the message is an important one that made me sit up and take notice. As a child, Jiyoung feels that ‘something was unjust and frustrating’, but she has a hard time expressing exactly what it is. Precisely this unsettled feeling pervades the entire book so effectively, making me reach for that hard-to-pinpoint sense of injustice and think about the way I live. And if any reader somehow hasn’t managed to feel this, the hammer blow that is the final sentence will more than do the trick.

A long review for a slight book, but finally I’d like to share one image that stuck with me particularly. It came very near the end of the book and concerned not Jiyoung, surprisingly, but a woman who features only as a sort of footnote: the wife of the psychiatrist writing the case study. In a few brief sentences, the psychiatrist describes how he has found his wife, who is a doctor-turned-stay-at-home-mum, completing their son’s maths workbooks late at night. When he questions the enjoyment she can be getting from it, she tells him ‘“this is the one thing I can control these days.”’ With all its unwritten emotion, I found the realism of that moment to be utterly devastating.

Kim Jiyoung is full of understated moments like these: delicately observed, finely drawn, lived rather than told. Its subject is men and women, but it is not a blame-culture book. It doesn’t shame men or even seem particularly angry with them, nor does it exhort women to have more courage and take a stand. Instead, quietly and methodically, it points out how deep-rooted gender inequality is, nudging us simply towards opening our eyes to a fact – which, in the end, may be the only way to make a lasting change.


3 thoughts on “‘Something was unjust and frustrating’ [book review]

  1. Wonderful review, once again. This is indeed a shocking, devastating book, which holds a mirror up to us all. So often, Kim Jiyoung avoids speaking up or saying what she is thinking, because to do so would make either her, or someone else’s, situation even worse. It’s like the system has built in its own defences, as if it were some thinking, calculating genius, rather than the result of centuries of misogynistic steps taken by uncountable men – and some women. All the other women, and many of the men, would haul it down, if only they could find the pull chord.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much for your kind words – I’m really glad you enjoyed the review. It certainly made me think a lot about all the time I haven’t spoken up because it didn’t seem to matter ‘enough’, which this book made me see can have serious consequences – all those little moments do stack up. The story itself didn’t leave me feeling hopeful, but maybe the fact that this book exists will help the system to start re-examining itself.

      Liked by 1 person

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