Winter in Sokcho by French-Korean author Elisa Shua Dusapin — born to a French father and a South Korean mother like the heroine of her first novel — is the latest recently-published offering on our radar which has gained recognition worldwide.
Narrated by a twenty-four-year-old Franco-Korean woman, brought up by her mother after her French father had vanished without a trace, Winter in Sokcho is an eerie, bleak and addictively unsettling read.
“Old Park hadn’t moved on from the days after the war, when guests were lured like squid to their nets, dazzled by strings of blinking lights. From the boiler room, on clear days, I could see the beach stretching all the way to the Ulsan mountains that swelled on the horizon . . . People washed up there by chance when they’d had too much to drink, or missed the last bus home.”
Sokcho is like coastal towns the world over, and is reminiscent of Menton in the South of France, or Cadaqués in Spain, in the way what was once a fishing village by the sea is now over run by tourists in the summer, and empty in the winter. A Frenchman from Granville in Normandy arrives to stay in the run-down guest house where the young woman works, in the dead of winter. A prolific and successful comic book writer, he is researching and sketching his next work. She watches him surreptitiously as he draws in his room, and is strangely attracted to this elusive, intriguing man.
She finds herself doing things for him that she does for no one else, and is annoyed at herself, yet still does them. She accompanies him on sightseeing trips to the border with North Korea which is 60 km away; a Buddhist temple complex on the slopes of Naksan Mountain; and the bridge where a famous scene was filmed for the hit movie, First Love.
There are only a few other guests staying, including a young Japanese woman wrapped up in bandages who rarely leaves her room as she is recuperating from extensive cosmetic surgery. (Korea is known for being where you go to get your eyes widened.)
Her mother lives in the port and works in the guest house kitchen, and produces mouthwatering dishes of local delicacies. Their relationship is fractious. Her boyfriend, Jun-oh, leaves to go to model school in Seoul.
The Frenchman asks her about local myths and legends, and she offers to cook Korean delicacies for him, for Seollal, or Lunar New Year, the most celebrated holiday in South Korea. But he is uninterested and too self-absorbed to notice. Her Korea has nothing to do with the picture-postcard variety offered to tourists, in which he is interested. When she takes him off the beaten track, to go to “one of the fish places by the water” he complains.
“Stall owners were stretching tarpaulin sheets in front of their stands to protect them from the wind. The customers, old men. Shouts mingling with the chilli and fermented cabbage smells of kimchi and steam from the soups. One stand serving octopus, another crab, raw fish. Kerrand was shaking his head, The noise, he said, the smells, the lack of space.”
She seems lost, rudderless. And feels unseen, unheard. Gradually, she is drawn into the story of his comic book. Will she be seduced by him? Will history repeat itself?
Winter in Sokcho is deftly translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins. Imbued with a strange sense of abandonment, the spare language contrasts with the world of light and shadows that it conveys. If you are looking for translated fiction to lose yourself in, the kind of book that will thoroughly engage and transport you to another world, then read and relish Winter in Sokcho.
Interest in Korean fiction and film has blossomed and bloomed since Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin won the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize; The Vegetarian by Han Kang won the Man Booker International Prize 2016; and the film Parasite (written, directed and produced by Bong Joon Ho) carried off four Oscars in 2020.
The Great Homecoming by Anna Kim which is reviewed HERE featured in our Bridging the Divide podcast series.
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