Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
A novel with footnotes? Yes, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 has footnotes. And the writing has a dry, workmanlike tone, very little dialogue, and not much in the way of the sort of plot and character development one would expect in a work of fiction, especially one that has become an international bestseller. Only at the end of the book does this all—even the footnotes—finally make sense, and it spoils nothing to reveal that the reason for the rather clinical presentation is that the book is narrated by a therapist who is treating the main character, Kim Jiyoung, for what he originally thought was postpartum depression.
But that diagnosis proves to be too facile. The narrative follows Kim Jiyoung from childhood to adulthood, and, ultimately, parenthood, comparing her aspirations for herself with the expectations of her mother, father, sister, brother, boyfriends, and husband. To South Koreans, women are subservient at every level, almost reflexively catering to men at home, school, and work as a matter of course. And while Jiyoung herself tends to be shy and submissive, she encounters girls and women who are not, who push back against harassment, denigration, and worse. As such, Jiyoung represents most Korean women, trapped in convention, gradually losing ambition for personal achievement to the forces of conformity. And it wears her down, and, soon after she becomes a mother, her identity splinters.
Author Cho Nam-Joo is writing about what it is to be a woman in modern South Korea. It is a sweeping indictment of Korean society on several levels. In this heavily male-dominated society, females are treated as second-class citizens literally from birth (having a baby girl is traditionally seen as a disappointment, and mothers are often consoled by older relatives of both sexes for their misfortunate at not having a boy). This inferior status persists through elementary school, high school, university, and career.
The incidents of shaming, abuse, neglect, sexism, and prejudice by men are relentless in Jiyoung's life, and Cho spares no one. Yet this is far from a feminist diatribe. What Cho also shows is that men, though benefitting from this arrangement, are also trapped in it. They perpetuate paternalistic, discriminatory norms as a matter of convenience and habit, and naturally make little effort to gain any sort of distanced perspective on what women are going through. And this acquiescence has the effect of enabling the very worst of males to remain over-represented in positions of power in society. Inevitably, the destructive effect this has on women spills over to stifle any man who might otherwise be capable of treating women as equals.
And while this book is about South Korean society, it is also a mirror for all societies around the world to hold up in front of themselves and assess their own treatment of girls and women and how they have structured the respective roles of men and women. None will get off easy.
The book ends with a major bit of irony that strips back yet another layer of the shell that has protected the male establishment in Korea for so long, but let readers discover that for themselves!
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is published by House of Anansi.