Book Review: Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (trans. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

About the Book:

Winner of the Prix Robert Walser — a beautiful, unexpected novel from a debut French-Korean author.

It’s winter in Sokcho, a tourist town on the border between South and North Korea. The cold slows everything down. Bodies are red and raw, the fish turn venomous, beyond the beach guns point out from the North’s watchtowers. A young French-Korean woman works as a receptionist in a tired guesthouse. One evening, an unexpected guest arrives: a French cartoonist determined to find inspiration in this desolate landscape. The two form an uneasy relationship. When she agrees to accompany him on trips to discover an ‘authentic’ Korea, they visit snowy mountaintops and dramatic waterfalls, and cross into North Korea. But he takes no interest in the Sokcho she knows — the gaudy neon lights, the scars of war, the fish market where her mother works. As she’s pulled into his vision and taken in by his drawings, she strikes upon a way to finally be seen.

An exquisitely crafted debut, Winter in Sokcho is a novel about shared identities and divided selves, vision and blindness, intimacy and alienation. Elisa Shua Dusapin’s voice is distinctive and unmistakable.

Published by Scribe

Released 1st July 2021

My Thoughts:

This was quite an arresting little novel. I’ve never read anything set in Korea before, and I must admit, my knowledge on the specifics of the divide between South Korea and North Korea was pretty sketchy prior to reading this. I was really surprised to discover that it is a stretch of no mans land, the most heavily guarded and militarised border in the world. There is a startling moment in the novel when the main character speaks of a woman who was shot while swimming because she unknowingly strayed into North Korea. That just beggars belief, and yet, it is the way of life for those who live along the border, such is the case for the characters in this novel, who live in Sokcho, a South Korean coastal town that survives on tourism in the summer and seafood all year round. When we join them though, it is deep into winter, as cold as minus twenty-seven degrees (Fahrenheit or Celsius, that is still profoundly cold). It’s not only the beaches that attract the tourists, but the border itself, in a macabre way that repels the locals as much as it interests the tourists.

‘Our beaches are still waiting for the end of a 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 a winter that never ends.’

Reading this novel was a cultural experience and I was keenly interested to observe how much of daily life revolved around food, not necessarily eating, but the preparation of it; there was almost an air of ceremony about it. Octopus, followed by fish, seemed to be the most common ingredient to base meals upon. The main character’s mother was a fishmonger, but she was particularly skilled in the preparation and artistic presentation of blowfish, which apparently has highly toxic organs. If any of these toxins leak into the flesh and are consumed, it can be fatal, so the preparation of blowfish indeed requires a highly skilled fishmonger. Of course, there was more to this novel than fish and food, but I was very interested in all of this, the way in which these details conveyed the culture and weighed in on the South Korean way of life. Food is so often one of the primary cultural aspects that define and differentiate societies from one another, and I do really love it when an author can convey this with so much authenticity.

Our main character – and we never learn her name – is full of self-doubt. She binge eats when she’s around her mother and loathes herself for doing so. Her mother adores her and clings to her, yet caustically makes suggestions about her appearance: eat more because you are too skinny; watch your weight or you will never get married; you should get plastic surgery to help you find a husband. Our main character feels loyalty and a great sense of obligation towards her mother, feels as though she can’t move away because that would mean abandoning her mother (she is an only child and there is no husband/father), and yet, she is repelled by her mother’s neediness for her. Her boyfriend isn’t much better, obsessed with himself and his potential modelling career, suggesting she get plastic surgery, that they get it together as there are special deals for couples who do. The topic of plastic surgery came up more than once and was linked with the idea that those who get plastic surgery are the ones who will ‘make it in Seoul’, and therefore, make it in life. Our main character was particularly resistant to getting surgery, we observe that there is a woman staying at the guesthouse recovering from plastic surgery, hiding away until she is healed so she can re-emerge back in Seoul as a new person. It was terribly sad, the sense of potential happiness that was linked with having surgery done, because ‘who doesn’t need a little improvement’.

I feel like the omission of a name for our main character is quite an important aspect to the story. She is visible only for her usefulness, as an employee, as a daughter, as a niece, as a girlfriend, as a tour guide. These are all roles she plays but none of them define her, encapsulate who she really is and what she dreams of doing with her life. The French cartoonist who checks into the guesthouse for some peace and quiet so he can work on his next book offers her a glimmer of potential. Her father was French, and she majored in French and English Literature at University. She dreams one day of visiting France. The cartoonist, Kerrand, is odd though, abrupt and casually insulting about Sokcho. I like the way in which she wouldn’t let him get away with it, particularly as they got to know one another a little better. She finds herself intrigued by him, as well as attracted to him, yet fails to notice his interest in her, or at least, attributes it to something else, anything other than him liking her as she feels too awkward and unattractive, worried about her glasses, her weight, and a childhood scar on her leg. As the novel is only told from her perspective, we are left to read the signs that indicate his interest, many of which are there, reading between the lines of what she is seeing but not really noticing.

‘I didn’t want to be his eyes on my world. I wanted to be seen. I wanted him to see me with his own eyes. I wanted him to draw me.’

The ending is quite lovely and very open to whatever the reader wants to imagine will happen next. We are assured of one thing though, right at the very end, and it was something that made me smile along with our main character. Is it not what everybody wants at some point in their life? To be seen for who they are through the eyes of someone they admire? This novel is not a long read but it is fulfilling. Elisa Shua Dusapin, French Korean herself, writes beautifully, and the translation by Aneesa Abbas Higgins is very well done. I forgot I was even reading a translation, it was as though the novel had been written in English, which is no small feat because there are actually French words that have no English translation, so hats off to her. Winter in Sokcho is an assured debut from a talented young author that I would be keen to read more from. Absorbing and affecting, recommended for fans of literary fiction.

☕☕☕☕

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (trans. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

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