Elisa Shua Dusapin, Winter in Sokcho (#BookReview)

French Korean writer Elisa Shua Dusapin’s award-winning debut novella, Winter in Sokcho, was published when she was just 22 years old. As the title conveys, it is set in Sokcho, a tourist town in the Republic of Korea near the border between the two Koreas. In fact, when the Korean peninsula was divided into two countries following World War II, Sokcho was on the Northern side, but became part of the South after the 1953 Korean War armistice 1953. I suspect Sokcho was chosen as the setting partly for its “divided” history, this being in-between, neither one thing or the other,

But, more on that later. The novel’s unnamed first person narrator is a 24-year-old French Korean woman who works in a struggling guesthouse. She seems to do everything – reception, cooking, cleaning – but with little enthusiasm. The novel opens with the arrival of an unexpected guest, the 40-something French graphic novelist, Yan Kerrand. The two are drawn to each other in some way, but, at least from Kerrand’s point-of-view, it doesn’t seem to be romantically driven. For our protagonist, the situation is a little more complex. She has a boyfriend – Jun-Oh – but it’s not a satisfactory relationship from her perspective. However, her fish-market worker mother is expecting an engagement any day. The situation is ripe for something different to happen in her life, but will it – and what, anyhow, does she want? She seems betwixt and between.

Winter in Sokcho has many of the features I like in a novella, starting with spare expressive prose, a tightly contained storyline, and a confined setting. There’s also a small cast of characters, with little or no digression into backstories. All we have is what’s happening now.

And, what is happening now is that the stranger’s appearance has affected our narrator. In the second paragraph, while registering him as a guest, she says

I felt compelled for the first time since I’d started at the guest house, to make excuses for myself. I wasn’t responsible for the run-down state of the place. I’d only been working there a month.

We then move to her visiting her mother, and another thread begins to appear, that of body image. We’ve already been told that one of the guesthouse guests is “seeking refuge from the city while she recovered from plastic surgery to her face”, and now we are introduced to our narrator’s mother’s concern about her appearance. She’s too thin, her mother says. Our narrator rejects this, but soon after, in a photograph her boyfriend has taken of her, she sees “a wasteland of ribs and shoulder blades receding into the distance … her bones sticking out” and is “surprised at how much”. When she’s with her mother, she binges on the food her mother makes, only to feel “sick” and later repelled by her “misshapen body”. There is a tension between this single mother and her daughter that pervades the novel. We sense that our narrator would like to leave Sokcho. Indeed, there’s a reference early on to the “literary world” suggesting she has aspirations in that area, but she feels she cannot leave her mother. Betwixt and between.

Throughout the novella, there’s an atmosphere of things being out of kilter or not quite right. Early on, the narrator describes Sokcho’s beach:

I loved this coastline, scarred as it was by the line of electrified barbed wire fencing along the shore.

This is not your typically loveable beach view, but she herself bears a physical scar on her thigh to which she often refers. It’s unexplained but there are hints later of self-harming. Meanwhile, later in the book, Kerrand tells her that he prefers the beaches of Normandy to those in southern France, because they are

Colder, emptier. With their own scars from the war.

And so the novella progresses, in this clipped spare prose, with a sort of wary dance going on between the narrator and Kerrand. He’s there for inspiration for the last book in his series about “a globe-trotting archaeologist … A lone figure. With a striking resemblance to the author.” She is intrigued by him. She offers to show him some local sights – the border region, with its checkpoint “No Laughing” rule, and the nearby national park, with its snowy mountains and waterfalls. She watches him, surreptitiously, as he draws by night, but always the drawings are destroyed by morning, because they are imperfect.

What does Kerrand see in her, what is he looking for? This being a first person narrative, we see it all through her eyes. She is as reliable a narrator as she can be, but like any first person narrator her viewpoint is limited by her perspective.

Winter in Sokcho does not have a simple resolution, but I’ll return to that idea of Sokcho being chosen as the setting. Its divided history mirrors our narrator who is also divided – in her French Korean heritage and her torn sense of self. Further, Sokcho is described as “always waiting”, as it seems also is our narrator, though for what, even she doesn’t really know.

How much is this a personal story and how much political? Two-thirds through, as she and Kerrand discuss their scarred beaches, she tells him (and just look at this writing):

Our beaches are still waiting for the end of the war that’s been going on for so long people have stopped believing it’s real. They build hotels, put up neon signs, but it’s all fake, we’re on a knife edge, it could all give way any moment. We’re living in limbo. In winter that never ends.

There can be no neat ending to such a story, but without spoiling anything, I’ll share something she sees in Kerrand’s final drawing:

A place, but not a place. A place taking shape in a moment of conception and then dissolving. A threshold, a passage …

Does this suggest hope, albeit tenuous – for both the narrator and her Korea? I’m reading it that way. As for the closing lines … they are glorious.

Read for Novellas in November, Week 2: Novellas in Translation.

Elisa Shua Dusapin
Winter in Sokcho
Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas-Higgins
Melbourne: Scribe, 2021 (Orig. pub. 2016)
154pp.
ISBN: 9781922585011

(Review copy courtesy Scribe)

21 thoughts on “Elisa Shua Dusapin, Winter in Sokcho (#BookReview)

  1. Hist.Fic. – I would listen to it if I came across it as an audiobook, just to learn about somewhere different. But without a background in Korean lit. it would be difficult to know what the author was really commenting on – the ongoing state of tension, as Lisa points out? the difficulty of having a white father in 1950s Korea, which must have been quite common; the difficulties faced by the author’s grandparents, which probably included starvation.

  2. Hmmm, Bill, I didn’t say this was historical fiction. You were probably thrown by the brief history of Sokcho that I gave in my introduction. I’d call it contemporary fiction, though it also has a timeless sense in that there are not many specifics to place it in a particular time. There’s an old-world sense to the guest house, but the narrator does tell Kerrand “Wifi password: ilovesokcho, all one word, no capitals” and the way the young people behave feels contemporary.

    I think it’s the sort of book that is left somewhat open to the reader to decide what it’s about, but there are markers. Besides the personal and political ones I mentioned, there’s also a gender issue I think. The few men in the novel are names (Yan Kerrand, the guesthouse owner Park, and the boyfriend Jun-Oh) but the only woman named, if I remember correctly is Mother Kim who has a food stall. Why this?

    I haven’t read much Korean literature. I’ve read a couple set there or partly there, and Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please look after mother (or mom, depending on your edition!) and I’ve seen a few Korean films, like Parasite and Decide to leave, but this reminds me, in tone, also of some Japanese literature, like Sayaka Murata’s Convenience store woman and Murakami’s After dark or Norwegian wood.

  3. Oh, I read this last year and really enjoyed it. I thought it interesting that it was written in French and because of that it didn’t have the absurdist kind of folklorish (is that a word) that I normally associate with Korean literature. Not that I have read a lot of Korean lit but the books I have read seem to have commonality in terms of style and tone and subject matter. I really liked the hypnotic nature of the prose of Winter in Sokcho, it really evoked a certain atmospheric and mood.

    • That’s interesting Kimbofo … I haven’t read enough Korean literature to have that sense. It just felt Asian to me … in the Japanese way in particular. I agree about the prose. It’s always hard to comment on translated work but it felt like this one … because the prose is so strong … was well translated ie it would have been hard to make up!

  4. Pingback: It’s Novellas in November time – add your links here! #NovNov22

  5. I do have a few Korean books on my TBR, but I haven’t gotten to any of them yet. I was largely influenced by the Korean horror movies I’ve been watching in the last few years, including Parasite, which you mentioned in another comment, Train to Busan, Gonjiam, and The Call. Their stuff is really interesting, smart, and captivating, so I do wonder if the fiction coming out of Korea is just as grand.

    • I think it probably is Melanie though this is only my second. I saw another Korean movie a week or so ago … Decide to leave. It was smart too. More crime than horror but you might like it!

      I had my hair cut by a Korean recently and he said something that captured my attention … his accent was a bit tricky but I think he was saying that Korea – South Korea – was not of much interest to tourists because everything was new. They keep pulling things didn’t and building new ones. I suddenly realised that I really never do think of Korea in terms of sights! Food and modern cities and the DMZ are mostly what I think but not temples etc.

  6. Lovely to read your thoughts on this one. As you say, it has a slightly off-kilter, enigmatic atmosphere, almost like a dream. I read it a couple of years ago and absolutely loved it. Her latest The Pachinko Parlour is excellent too (if you haven’t read it already).

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