I’ve been working from home since Wednesday and it took until yesterday for me to really use the situation to get on with my reading. I spent a few hours on Sunday afternoon to finish the last 110 or so pages of my current read, which wasn’t great going considering it is only about 160 pages long. Still, it has hopefully set me up to get better and use my downtime to read more. Which I need to do considering how many books I’ve bought recently. My 2020 book buying ban had been going quite well until I was faced with having to spend an undisclosed amount of time stuck inside my house. Then I went crazy and decided I need to bulk buy books to keep me occupied. Not that I’m ever in any danger of having nothing to read. On the plus side, I bought and preordered a few books by international authors. I’ve been getting better at reading a wider range of authors in the past few years, so 2020 should prove to be my most diverse reading list ever.
I bought Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 because it was recommended to me after I added a different book to my Amazon basket. I hadn’t heard anything about it before but it sounded like my kind of thing. A deep character study that also wanted to tackle institutional sexism is right up my street. The novel is split into four main parts that document the personal history of Kim Jiyoung, a 33-year-old mother who has been suffering from mental health issues. She has started to take on other people’s personalities and nobody can explain why. Jiyoung will seem perfectly fine but then suddenly become her mother or her dead college friend. After a tense meal with her in-laws, her husband finally convinces her to see a doctor and her sessions with her psychiatrist make up the majority of the novel.
The three sections take us through the history of her family and the four stages of her life. We go through her childhood, her adolescence, her early adulthood, and her married life. Within this, we learn about her mother and father’s lives and how the family fits into Korean society. The novel isn’t afraid to highlight the huge inequality between genders that exists. Jiyoung was born at a time when it was preferred that women gave birth to boys and were known to get abortions so they didn’t have a girl. She was born during a time when Jiyoung and her older sister were expected to share a room so their younger brother could get his own. She attended a school where boys were given preferential treatment like being served first at lunchtime.
Jiyoung and her friends aren’t openly told that women are second-class citizens but they instinctively know that they should be helping around the house while their brother does nothing. They know that they will get the last scrapings of rice and the broken dumplings so the men can get what they need. They understand that they have to dress in a conservative way or risk being looked at or touched by strange men. Jiyoung’s first job out of college sees her getting paid only 63% of what men earn. She has very little chance of being promoted as she is not seen as a long-term prospect. Her bosses see a future of marriage and motherhood that prevents her from becoming a viable employee in their eyes. When she eventually does have a child, the young mother is torn about what to do. She loves her job but can’t afford the live-in childcare but she is judged lazy for being a stay-at-home mum. Jiyoung finds herself damned if she goes back to work or damned if she doesn’t. Is it any wonder she’s struggling to keep a grip on her own identity?
What gives the story so much weight and makes it all the more frustrating are the footnotes that accompany the facts. The story of Jiyoung’s life is written out clinically and analytically where statistics are thrown in at every turn. We learn the cold hard facts about how difficult life was for women 1982 and 2016 with references to add credibility. This is the story of a young woman told from a dispassionate and removed perspective. It takes a bit of getting used to but the tone really adds to the sense that women really aren’t relevant. The way the novel is structured removes humanity from the character. She is not meant to be seen as a real person but as a case study. It’s such a fantastic decision and Cho Nam-Joo’s writing style creates a sense of entrapment. Her choice of words creates a vacuum where a young woman’s life should be. Kim Jiyoung is no longer an individual but an object being dissected piece by piece.
The novel doesn’t read like an ordinary story. It feels so soulless and straight. There is no real excitement or fun to be found. It is just the chronology of a woman in her 30s. We don’t see her as extraordinary or noteworthy. Instead, we are presented with a fairly dull and predictable life. Albeit one filled with anxiety and the threat of sexism at every turn. Really this was the only way to really present the kind of life that women would have. They are trapped in a world that doesn’t give them individuality. They are objects to be leered over or demeaned. They are the people who cook, clean, and look after the men. You may think that the way this story is reductive but it is exactly what is needed. Kim Jiyoung is just another casualty of this system and the fact that her story is told in this way is a necessary disservice. She needed to sacrifice her humanity to shine a light on the injustice. She needed to be the vehicle for the rage felt by every woman who has been torn apart by the patriarchy.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 isn’t what you would call a fun read but it is an engaging one. It is a book that will inspire you and fill you with rage. It will hit a nerve with everyone who understands that inequality between the genders still exists all over the world and is a powerful conversation starter. It raises so many issues concerning feminism and gender that it’s easy to see why anti-feminists have turned against it. By the end of this book, you won’t know a lot about Kim Jiyoung as a person but you will know enough about what she has had to face. You will know enough to be enraged that people are still being treated like this. This book more than lives up to its reputation and is another great piece of social analysis to come out of Korea in recent years.