Kim Jiyoung is not a remarkable woman. She comes from a conventional family, went to school and college, got a job, found a partner, married and had a child. Everything about Kim Jiyoung is what everyone would expect – until the day when, aged 34, she sets off on a course that frightens her husband, alienates her in-laws and looks set to undo the stability and predictability that has been the defining feature of their lives. Jiyoung begins to speak as if another person were inhabiting her body. When she addresses her husband by talking about herself in the third person, he thinks it’s a slightly odd but understandable cry for attention and support. However, when she takes on the persona of a friend who died the year before, he starts to feel more and more unsettled. Finally, after an altercation at a family gathering where Jiyoung speaks some uncomfortable home truths about their behaviour – all the while as if she were commenting as another person – her husband, Daehyun, decides to book her an appointment with a psychiatrist. The story that follows is of Jiyoung’s life as recounted to the doctor during their sessions.
The style in which Cho Nam-Joo relates her protagonist’s tale is clever, unusual and extremely effective; Jiyoung, while not in any way a two-dimensional character, is nonetheless very obviously an everywoman, intended to represent the millions of women in South Korea (and in many other countries too) who come up against barrier after barrier when simply attempting to live their lives with the same freedoms and opportunities as their male counterparts. At times it reads almost like a work of fact rather than fiction, the author peppering the narrative with pertinent statistics relating to women’s earnings in the workplace, or the ratio of men to women in a society that favours male children to the point where abortions of female foetuses are a frighteningly common occurrence. And actually, this is a work of fact in the guise of a novel. Everything Cho Nam-Joo describes is a genuine reflection of women’s existence in a society that favours men from cradle to grave.
It’s not an easy read. Some of the discrimination – and danger – Kim Jiyoung suffers is very overt, such as the episode where man follows her onto a bus and sexually harasses her. Slightly more subtle, but just as frightening in its implications, is the bullying that she and her female classmates receive at the hands of male students – and most importantly, the teachers’ response or lack thereof. Even when one teacher, unusually, tries to dig into an incident in which Jiyoung’s shoe is stolen, she tells the girl that her tormentor’s behaviour is because “he likes you…..Boys are like that; they’re meaner to the girls they like.” This is a world in which boys literally have the upper hand from the day they’re born; the author describes how women from all generations of Kim Jiyoung’s family were commiserated when they gave birth to girls, and constantly endured friends and relations telling them how much better their lives would be once they’d had a boy and the pressure was off them to produce a male child. Once the patriarchal set-up has been established, it never lets up. All the way through school, college and finally the workplace, Jiyoung and her female friends find themselves second best and having to fight for the most basic of rights. Boys are served lunch first in the school canteen while the girls have to wait in a second queue. Business managers promote men over women who are more competent, and are quite candid about the fact they’ve done so. Female siblings are expected to use their salaries to contribute to the higher education of their brothers in order that they might have better employment opportunities. Some of it seems so absurdly discriminatory as to be almost unbelievable, but it’s all too true.
To say I enjoyed the book wouldn’t be a fair assessment, as it’s quite clearly not meant to be a comfortable or escapist read. As the injustices pile up, so does the rage of the reader, as we get a very vivid sense of the powerlessness of women in the face of such an entrenched patriarchy. That’s not to say that Cho Nam-Joo presents her female characters as completely helpless; throughout the book there are small glimmers of hope as Jiyoung and others speak out against the circumstances in which they find themselves. All too often, however, small victories are followed by backward steps as the established social order of men first, women second, reasserts itself. Centuries of inequality cannot be overturned overnight. It is a difficult read, but a hugely important one. Only by shining a light on unfairness, discrimination and abuse can anything ever begin to change.