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.
Elisa Shua Dusapin
Winter in Sokcho
Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas-Higgins
Melbourne: Scribe, 2021 (Orig. pub. 2016)
(Review copy courtesy Scribe)