Winter in Sokcho

Winter in Sokcho is the debut novel of Elisa Shua Dusapin, published in French in 2016 and translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins to become the debut novel in Daunt’s new original fiction imprint. The narrator is a young South Korean woman whose mundane existence as a receptionist and maid at a dilapidated guesthouse is disturbed by the arrival of a French graphic novelist, Kerrand. He is there to find the inspiration to write the final volume in a series of adventures of a “globe-trotting archaeologist”; she seems to have run aground in her own life, marooned in her home town in a dead end job.

From the beginning their relationship is one of antagonistic indifference. “He looked straight through me, without seeing me,” she tells us when Kerrand arrives, and the novel will be, in many ways, her quest to be seen, though perhaps by herself as much as him. She, too, finds Kerrand difficult to see clearly:

“I couldn’t read the tone of his voice.”

Both, it seems, decide to show little interest in the other:

“He didn’t respond. Perhaps I bored him. So what?”

In contrast to her becalmed life, Dusapin surrounds the narrator with others her age who are attempting to move on and change themselves. There is the young woman who is recuperating from plastic surgery in the guesthouse (“She looked like a burn victim, the face neither a man’s nor a woman’s”), and the narrator’s boyfriend, Jun-oh, who leaves for an interview with a modelling agency in Seoul. He, too, accepts that plastic surgery may be necessary (“he didn’t think they’d expect him to have surgery, but if they did, he was prepared to have his nose, chin and eyes done”), and, later, an aunt suggests that this might benefit the narrator. Plastic surgery seems to represent a superficial search for identity by changing the outside, whereas then narrator’s journey takes place on a much deeper level, difficult even for her to understand.

The older characters, like the guesthouse owner Old Park and the narrator’s mother, are meanwhile happy to slowly age where they are –as best exemplified by the guesthouse itself which suffers from power failures and frozen pipes, and is not entirely habitable. The town, too, is portrayed as a place, like the narrator, simply waiting for something to happen:

“That was Sokcha, always waiting, for tourists, boats, men, spring.”

The narrator has a close relationship with her mother but one which can also be suffocating. She suggest that her mother is the reason she cannot leave Sokcha and she sleeps beside her once a week. Yet the closeness is also oppressive:

“That night, between the damp sheets, crushed by the weight of her head on my stomach, I felt her chest rising and falling as she slept.”

Her mother continually criticises her, one moment telling her, “You’ve lost weight. You need to eat more,” and the next: “You need to watch your figure.” When she is with her mother she compulsively eats until she feels nauseous. She tells Kerrand that she learned French, the language of her absent father, “So I could speak a language my mother wouldn’t understand.”

As Kerrand searches for the ‘perfect woman’ for his story, sketching and then abandoning his sketches, the narrator is also searching for something from him. She has as distinguishing scar, a “long, fine line that marked the time I’d fallen on a fish hook,” and it feels as if she has been hooked by Kerrand. Listening to him draw she hears:

“A gnawing sound, irritating. Working its way under my skin.”

But despite her need to be near him, the “thin paper wall” which separates them does not dissipate, however fragile. Moments when they are close, such as when she takes him to see the border with North Korea, do not develop: afterwards “he’d walk straight past me without saying a word.” His refusal to eat the food she prepares suggests an unwillingness to get to know her. His struggles with his art – “sometimes I think I’ll never be able to convey what I really want to say” – also apply to the narrator, and is perhaps what they sense they have in common.

Dusapin sustains the tension throughout, without the need to accelerate their relationship in the way we might expect. It remains ambiguous even at the end. Dusapin is compared to Marguerite Duras on the cover, and there is some similarity in the prevalence of mood over plot and the sense that the characters’ emotions originate somewhere deep inside them, beyond clear articulation – though Dusapin seems less convinced that everything leads back to sex and death. What is without doubt is that the novel has a seductive, original voice that draws the reader in even if, like the characters, they are not entirely sure what they are looking for.

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9 Responses to “Winter in Sokcho”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I was intrigued by the sound of this one after Jacqui’s review, and now you weigh in too, Grant! The comparison with Duras is interesting, as from what I’ve read of her she often deals in ambiguity too – and I do like books that aren’t always clear-cut.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I think that the ambiguity is what this has in common with the Duras I’ve read (which is admittedly not much). It’s built more on atmosphere than characterisation.

  2. fulcherkim Says:

    Great review. I thought this was wonderful (some added resonance for me as I’ve been to the area a couple of times)

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Brilliant review, Grant. I love how you’ve contrasted the nature of narrator’s inner life with those of the individuals surrounding her. As you’ve articulated so eloquently here, identity (and how this manifests itself through external appearance) is very much a central theme. Such a haunting book – I’m still thinking about it…

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    This was already on my wishlist (not Amazon, I have an app…) and your review certainly doesn’t change that. I’m hoping to pick this up once I can do some post-lockdown shopping. Not sure when that will be as I’m not furloughed, but whenever that is. It sounds very good.

    • 1streading Says:

      Being on furlough must be frustrating. I also dream of getting to a bookshop, although, even when this happens, it doesn’t seem like browsing will be the same.

  5. 2020 – a bad year with some good books | Pechorin's Journal Says:

    […] also highly enjoyable and extremely readable (take that Booker Panel 2011!). Grant wrote about it here and Jacqui here. Highly recommended. Also, fabulous cover. Daunt Books Publishing have done Dusapin […]

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