I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike story encompassing themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to society’s expectations.
The setting for the novella – this French-Korean writer’s debut – is Sokcho, a coastal city in the far north-east of South Korea, close to the North Korean border. Dusapin’s story revolves around a young woman in her early twenties, currently working as a cook and housemaid in a run-down guest house struggling to keep up with the new hotels in the city.
The narrator – who remains unnamed throughout – is something of a misfit in her community, her French-Korean origins marking her out as a source of speculation amongst the locals. Moreover, she is being made to feel inadequate by her conventional Korean mother, a woman who sells seafood at the nearby fish market. There are repeated references to the narrator’s weight and her status as an unmarried woman, both of which give rise to pressure from the mother. The narrator, for her part, feels at best ambivalent and at worst hostile to her boyfriend, Jun-oh, an aspiring model intent on furthering his career in Seoul.
Into the narrator’s life comes Kerrand, a French graphic artist from Normandy whose speciality is creating comics. Almost immediately, there is a certain frisson to the interactions between the two, an undeniable charge that feels detectable to the reader.
I felt a chill as a draught blew through the kitchen. Turning round I saw Kerrand come in. He wanted a glass of water. He watched me work while he drank it, staring hard as if he were trying to make sense of the image in front of him. I lost concentration and nicked the palm of my hand. Blood welled onto the carrots, hardening to form a brownish crust. Kerrand took a handkerchief from his pocket. He stood close to me and held it to the wound.
‘You should be more careful.’
‘I didn’t do it on purpose.’
‘Just as well.’
He smiled, pressing his hand against mine. I broke away, feeling uneasy. (p. 8)
With few contemporaries of her own age close at hand, the young woman is intrigued by Kerrand and his reasons for coming to Sokcho, particularly in the low season. In truth, the Frenchman is looking for inspiration for his new book, the final instalment in a series featuring a travelling archaeologist – a loner who bears a striking resemblance to Kennard with his dark looks and striking features.
At night, the young woman hears Kennard sketching in the next room, a sound shot through with sadness and melancholy, seeping into her consciousness as she tries to fall sleep.
In bed later, I heard the pen scratching. I pinned myself against the thin wall. A gnawing sound, irritating. Working its way under my skin. Stopping and starting. I pictured Kerrand, his fingers scurrying like spiders’ legs, his eyes are travelling up, scrutinising the model, looking down at the paper again, looking back up to make sure his pen conveyed the truth of his vision, to keep her from vanishing while he traced the lines. (p. 67)
There is a sense that the narrator is disturbed by Kennard’s potential vision of her, reflected in some of the drawings she secretly watches him sketching.
As the narrative unfolds, the connection between Kennard and the narrator waxes and wanes, defined by occasional moments of intensity interspersed with significant periods of latency. At first, the young woman does not reveal her dual nationality to him, choosing to communicate in broken English instead of her competent French. He eschews the Korean meals she cooks for the guests, preferring instead to pick up Western-style junk food which he eats alone in his room. Nevertheless, Kennard is sufficiently interested in the narrator to ask her to show him something of Sokcho. A trip to the border with North Korea follows, complete with a visit to the museum whose ghostly souvenir shop is staffed by a waxwork-like attendant, her face frozen as if in aspic.
Threaded through the novella are signs of tension between the South and the North. At Naksan these are highly visible, from the barbed wire on the beaches to the bunkers with sub-machine guns poking out from their openings. While the scars from WW2 on the beaches of Normandy are old and worn, those in South Korea remain raw, signalling a country still at war with its neighbour.
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. (p. 88)
Body image is another running theme, particularly the various pressures – both external and self-imposed – an individual can experience to look ‘perfect’ or attractive. Several aspects of the story tap into these anxieties, from the narrator’s battle with bulimia to her boyfriend’s obsession with modelling to a female guest’s recovery from plastic surgery. Food too plays an important role in the novella, mostly through the traditional meals the young woman prepares at the guest house, frequently using octopuses from her mother’s stall. The pufferfish is also highly symbolic here, a poisonous delicacy that must be prepared correctly to avoid death on consumption.
This novella is beautifully-written, characterised by Dusapin’s clipped, crystalline prose. The desolate South Korean landscape is skilfully evoked, the stark imagery reflecting feelings of division and alienation. Winters in Sokcho are especially cold and bleak. As the narrator reflects, one has to live through them to understand this, defined as they are by the essence of the city – the sights, the smells and the isolation – these are the elements that seep into the soul.
The book finishes on an enigmatic note, an ending that feels at once both mysterious and strangely inevitable. All in all, this is a haunting yet captivating novella of great tenderness and beauty. Very highly recommended indeed.
Winter in Sokcho is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers/Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.