Shortly after quitting her job in order to care for her new baby, Kim Jiyoung begins to act a little strange. She begins to impersonate other women, taking on their voices and mannerisms with extraordinary accuracy. Initially amused, her husband grows perturbed when Jiyoung appears to have no memory of such impersonations when they happen. When she begins referencing events she couldn’t have possibly known about during one of these episodes, he becomes frightened and sends her to a psychiatrist.
From there the book flashes back to Jiyoung’s childhood and slowly follows her as she gets into college, finishes school, gets her first job, all the way up through the present day, right before the start of her episodes. The plot itself isn’t particularly remarkable, as Jiyoung lives a relatively drama-free life. Rather, the tension in the narrative stems from the slow but incessant misogyny she faces in nearly every single one of her memories. The sexism she experiences is all-encompassing, ranging from the derisive attitudes of her schoolmates and later coworkers, to the patriarchal social norms which stifle her ambitions.
Cho Nam-Joo writes plainly and matter-of-factly about the various ways gender inequality manifests itself in South Korea, contrasting beautifully with the sexual violence and increasing psychosis experienced by the protagonist to create a compelling and unsettling story. Cho drew heavily from her own experiences as a working woman in South Korea, and was able to complete the short novel in only a couple of months. Upon publication, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 was widely embraced by feminists for its unflinching portrayal of the problems borne silently by women in the country. It was a particularly poignant read for me as a Korean-American woman, and I found that many of the dismissive attitudes encountered by Jiyoung were reflective of my own experiences in the United States which, for all its progression over the last several years, nevertheless has a long way to go when it comes to equal treatment of women.
If you enjoyed Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (yet another Korean novel about women dealing with mental illnesses in a heavily patriarchal society) or Margaret Atwood, I highly recommend this very quick read!