Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin

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Translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

Review by David Hebblethwaite

Winter in Sokcho is a first in several senses: the debut novel by French-Korean writer Elisa Shua Dusapin, and the first title published in Daunt Books’ new Originals list. Dusapin’s narrator is a young woman working in a guest house in Sokcho, a South Korean tourist town near the border. There aren’t many visitors in the winter, but one arrives just as the novel begins:

“He looked straight through me, without seeing me. Somewhat impatiently, he asked me in English if he could stay for a few days while he looked around for something else. I gave him a registration form to fill in. He handed me his passport so I could do it for him. Yan Kerrand, 1968, from Granville. A Frenchman. He seemed younger than in the photo, his cheeks less hollow. I held out my pencil for him to sign and he took a pen from his coat.”

Kerrand is a graphic novelist who has come to Sokcho in search of inspiration. Even in the introductory passage quoted above, there are signs that he’s not interested in doing things the local way, not even when it comes to signing his registration form. This is underlined a few pages later when he goes into a shop for some stationery, tears open packets of paper to examine the contents, demands to test some Korean-made ink even though it’s not allowed, then buys a different sort of ink anyway. No surprise, perhaps, that he doesn’t show up at mealtimes for the narrator’s local cuisine.

So it may seem at first that this is going to be the tale of a Westerner throwing his weight around in another culture, and possibly learning respect for it in the end. But Dusapin is doing something else here: her focus is on the narrator, who is ill at ease with her own situation. The narrator was from Sokcho originally, but left for university in Seoul. After returning home, her life has become static. She doesn’t seem that keen on any of the options that might be open to her, whether it’s getting engaged to her boyfriend or studying elsewhere. She has an unhealthy relationship with food and her own body. The way she narrates life in Sokcho, you could be forgiven for thinking that the fish market is the most active place in town. “That was Sokcho, always waiting, for tourists, boats, men, spring.”

The narrator’s French father stepped out of her mother’s life as swiftly as he stepped into it, and her only knowledge of France comes from literature and her studies. Kerrand is a tangible link to France for her – he represents somewhere else, another way of living. She keeps sneaking look at the Illustrations he draws in his room, hoping that one day he might draw her. Winter in Sokcho is a dance between two characters, a quiet novel that builds in intensity, a storm cloud waiting to break.

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David Hebblethwaite blogs at David’s Book World.

Elisa Shua Dusapin, Winter in Sokcho (Daunt Books, 2020). 978-1911547549, 160pp., paperback.

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