Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, by Cho Nam-Joo

One day, Jiyoung speaks in the voice of another woman. The next day, she speaks in yet another woman’s voice. When Jiyoung’s strange ventriloquism doesn’t go away, her husband sends her to a psychiatrist to find out what’s young. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, by Cho Nam-Joo (and translated by Jamie Chang), is the document her psychiatrist created after speaking with Jiyoung—complete with footnotes to relevant news articles and government statistics. The result is the portrait of an everywoman in modern Korea (albeit one who occasionally speaks in someone else’s voice).

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 presents a society that is slowly, painfully waking up to the inequalities between men and women. After a brief introduction that explains why Jiyoung is talking to a psychiatrist, the narrative takes us back to her childhood. She grew up in a smallish family. Her father was the main source of income, although her mother worked at a series of side jobs while taking care of three children and the home. Jiyoung’s paternal grandmother lives with them, always shown advocating for her grandson to have the most and the best of everything. In school, little acts of sexism further confine Jiyoung’s world. Girls have to dress conservatively, not go walking alone, stay in at night, etc. so that nothing happens to them. After college, Jiyoung has a hard time getting a job because all the best spots go to men and because all the employers expect young women to quit as soon as they become pregnant.

The only surprising thing in this novel is Jiyoung’s other voices. All the other moments of rebellion come from others who get fed up with the way things are. Jiyoung sometimes benefits from these forerunners but, mostly, she hits metaphorical walls over and over again. The result of Jiyoung’s inability to get a better job or share more responsibility for her home and child with her husband is a feeling of disgruntled helplessness. Other characters—sometimes “woke” men—will admit that things aren’t fair. But, invariably, they shrug and nothing changes.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is a book that holds a mirror up to Korean society. For American readers, this excellently translated story is an opportunity to compare how far (or not) our society has come since the 1970s. It is short, easily digested, and should make readers of any nationality utterly livid about the unspoken limits that are put on women, from their girlhood through middle-age.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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