Book Review

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo translated by Jamie Chang

Kim Jiyoung is a girl born to a mother whose in-laws wanted a boy. A female preyed upon by male teachers at school. A daughter whose father blames her when she is harassed late at night. 

Kim Jiyoung is a model employee but gets overlooked for promotion. A wife who gives up her career and independence for a life of domesticity.

Kim Jiyoung has started acting strangely.

Kim Jiyoung is depressed.

Kim Jiyoung is mad.

Kim Jiyoung is her own woman.

Kim Jiyoung is every woman.

The life story of one young woman born at the end of the twentieth century raises questions about endemic misogyny and institutional oppression that are relevant to us all. Riveting, original and uncompromising, this is the most important book to have emerged from South Korea since Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.  

There was a lot of noise about this novel when it was first published in the UK and it’s one that’s been on my radar for quite some time although beyond highlighting issues around everyday sexism, I wasn’t too sure what to expect.

The novel opens in 2015 as Kim Jiyoung – a wife and stay at home mother – begins to display some unusual behaviour towards her husband and his family.  The novel then takes us back to Jiyoung’s childhood and through the different stages of her life – childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, and marriage.  It’s a simple structure that catalogues one woman’s life so far, although as the blurb states, ‘Kim Jiyoung is every woman’ and there’s a sense that many of Jiyoung’s experiences are applicable to women world over. 

Throughout her life, we see all the ways in which women are – intentionally or not – treated as inferior and somehow lesser than their male counterparts.  It’s starts from Jiyoung’s birth, her mother apologetic at giving birth to two daughters before the much desired male heir arrives.  This early preferential treatment continues, with more leniency shown to the boys at school, and even as they get older where predatory behaviour is excused as laddishness while the victimised women are accused of leading them on.  Even as adults and applying for work, two individuals with the same qualifications may be judged on the likelihood of them taking time out and / or leaving to have a family, and we all know who takes on that responsibility more often than not. It’s a whole catalogue of the way in which the system is inherently in favour of men, and from such a young age that it’s ingrained in all as “just the way things are”.

Growing up in the UK, my experience hasn’t been as bad as Jiyoung’s.  Her childhood differs the most I think, where some measures that are mentioned – e.g. aborting a pregnancy simply because it’s a girl – seem extreme to me, although I’m aware that this is not a unique policy by any means.  As Jiyoung gets older, I found more parallels with her life and my own knowledge and experience – particularly the victim blaming and the way in which it’s still the woman who – more often than not – puts their career on hold to take on childcare.  The novel documents Jiyoung’s gradual realisation of the unfairness and her growing sense of helplessness and frustration at being unable to influence matters and yet she appears relatively calm throughout while the reader – this reader, at least – became increasingly angry. 

The novel takes quite a strange tone throughout, and I expect that it won’t suit everyone.  It’s very matter of fact, even in those moments when anger and frustration are understandable, and even features statistics throughout to emphasise certain points.  I didn’t mind this, and thought throughout that the tone reflected how commonplace Jiyoung’s experiences are and making it applicable to all, but I didn’t fully appreciate the cleverness behind the set up until the end of the novel.  Stick with it, if you find the detachment a little odd.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is a short novel – at some 160-ish pages it may be an option for those taking part in novella November.  It documents the ways in which the system is so often stacked against women and how there are some with poor attitudes to equality even now despite the progress that has been made. While I think that Korea is a particularly extreme example, there are elements that all women can relate to in some way, shape, or form.  And it ends on such a delicious note of irony – it’s absolutely pitch perfect. Recommended.


    1. It’s really interesting – an insight into a woman’s life in Korea, but with points that I think most can relate to.

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