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Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982 (2016) | Book Review

by Isabelle Hampton-Zabotti

Rating: 4/5

photo courtesy of Simon and Schuster UK

Kim Ji-Young, born 1982, has lost her damn mind. She is saying things with a smile that should never be said, and worst of all, they’re true. Her in-laws are horrified, her husband aghast, yet, there’s no doubt about it: Ji-Young is acting odd. She is pretending to be every woman she has known, except herself. It wasn’t always this way; Kim Ji-Young went to college.

She had a good job with a small marketing agency — although, she had to quit her job to take care of her newborn. But, she had a child, and a husband, and everything was fine. Good even, compared to the generations before her. So what went wrong?

Cho Nam-Joo’s first book is a biting portrayal of an ordinary woman’s life in South Korea, covering her birth, childhood and early adulthood. The book begins and ends in the present, as we see that the everyday occurrences of misogyny and encoded sexism in her life have slowly, but surely, whittled down Ji-Young’s selfhood. She becomes a woman before she is a human. The novel has sold over photo courtesy of Simon and Schuster UK

a million copies in South Korea, and as of 2022, has been translated into more than ten languages and sold more than 300,000 copies abroad. It clearly resonates beyond the borders of one country and speaks to the lived experience of women across the globe.

Its success perhaps lies in demonstrating how the damage that misogyny causes is not just trauma from one huge incident, but it is the many, many straws that eventually break the camel's back. It's about the sacrifices, the career-stunting, the longer routes and the careful rejections. It’s about the throwaway comment your in-laws make about your food as you worked to prepare a meal over the holiday, while your dear husband only got up to pour himself a drink.

Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982 revels in its details. By the end, you know Ji-Young as intimately as yourself, and see more of yourself in her than you would perhaps want to.

What underpins the novel is the use of footnotes, the reason for which Cho Nam-Joo says is "so that its message wouldn’t be dismissed as a made-up account of one woman’s experience". It is somewhat heartbreaking that, even in an author’s own novel, she must fight for credibility.

Therefore, I wonder what Kim Ji-Young would look like, born in 1992, or 2002. Would Kim Ji-Young's mother apologise to her mother-in-law for birthing a girl? Would she be pressured to drink by male superiors at dinner parties? Would she still be paid significantly less than her coworkers, given the more difficult clients, and still find herself less prioritised? What one takes away from Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982, however, is not the heralding of change but its stagnation. Its complacency. I sincerely hope that this is not the case.


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