Title: Winter in Sokcho
Author: Elisa Shua Dusapin
Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins
Publisher: Daunt Books Originals
Genre: Literary Fiction, Novella, Translations
Dusapin’s debut novel is about a young biracial Korean woman living and working in a small guesthouse in Sokcho, South Korea, a beach town that is quite close to the North Korean border. It is almost possible to take a day trip over the border.
The narrator, the woman is unnamed. She has returned to her hometown from her university in Seoul to be close to her mother. She doesn’t know her father as he left before she was born. She works as a live-in receptionist and a cook at the aforementioned guest house and that is when she encounters a middle-aged French graphic novelist, Yan Kerrand, who has come to Sokcho to seek inspiration and work on his new project. He is perhaps old enough to be her father, maybe that’s why the strong feelings she feels towards him.
Nothing happens more or less. Time passes and then there are moments. There is no definitive action and maybe that’s when Sokcho plays such a huge role in the book – the broodiness of the town, the season of winter shining through and looming large on the lives of everyone – right from food consumed to the smells to the octopus to also the constant terror from South Korea, and mainly the isolation.
The protagonist’s relationship with food is the one she has with her life – always thinking nothing is good enough – so she eats and purges it all out. Her physical body then becomes a thing of critique by her mother, her aunt, and even Kerrand to a large extent.
Winter in Sokcho is an unusual book in the sense that it says so much in so little. The brevity of the prose had me from the start. Dusapin conserves her words, using them only if really needed to. Some sentences are staggering – like the one about not knowing the outside world, of just staying in Sokcho and nothing happening there. The translation from French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins is sharp and precise.
Winter in Sokcho delivers such a potent story, that you cannot help but think about it later. There is this constant ache that lingers – of lost communication, of expressions that are not understood, and emotions that are better hidden than told. Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho captures desire, motherhood, life along a border town, loneliness, and above all the need to make sense of one’s surroundings most beautifully, also making us aware of the darkness beneath the surface.
Books/Authors mentioned in Winter in Sokcho:
Guy de Maupassant