An out-of-season South Korean resort, a mysterious foreign visitor and a young woman whose dual nationality and anguished diffidence mark her out as an anomaly among her community are the main components of French-Korean author Elisa Shua Dusapin’s compact first novel. The book is set in Sokcho, a city so close to South Korea’s impenetrable northern counterpart that it is possible to take a day trip over the border.
Dusapin’s unnamed narrator has returned to her home town from university in Seoul. Working as a live-in receptionist and cook at a dead-end guesthouse run by the grumpy Old Park, she has resisted opportunities for further study abroad as obstinately as she holds out against an anticipated engagement to her vacuous model boyfriend. Winter has encased Sokcho like a snow globe: in this precarious frozen landscape, figures move as languorously as the crabs and octopuses occupying the glass tanks of its vast fish markets.
Terse and sometimes staggeringly beautiful prose … Elisa Shua Dusapin.
The unexpected arrival at the hotel of a guest from France, a comic-book artist called Kerrand, stirs a frenzy in the young woman, in whom he takes a sporadic but intense interest. Kerrand is old enough to be her unknown French father. “Western face. Dark eyes. Hair combed to one side.” While he invites the narrator to assist him in his search for ‘authentic’ Korea, he is curiously averse to her offers of local cuisine, preferring western takeaways, and constantly citing an aversion to “spicy” food. She has studied French; he talks of Maupassant, Monet and the “grey and dense” light of his native Normandy. For the narrator, the contrast with Sokcho seems stark: “You had to be born here, live through the winters. The smells, the octopus. The isolation.”
These brief conversational asides contrast with the book’s omnipresent viscerality: the narrator’s mother, an expert at cooking the potentially deadly fugu or pufferfish, has a fish market stall where scales and blood are routinely trod underfoot, like the painful collective memories of a divided country. Body dysmorphia abounds, from the narrator’s frequent cycles of overeating and purging to the hopeless quest for perfection manifested in the swollen, bandaged face of a female hotel guest who has undergone plastic surgery. Identity is in crisis, with the toweringly obvious symbol of a land divided hanging over it all.
Dusapin’s terse sentences are at times staggeringly beautiful, their immediacy sharply and precisely rendered from French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins: “the rain hammered down, the sea rising beneath it in spikes like the spines of a sea urchin”. Oiled with a brooding tension that never dissipates or resolves, Winter in Sokcho is a noirish cold sweat of a book.