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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Winter in Sokcho

Elisa Shua Dusapin

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To purchase Winter in Sokcho

Title: Winter in Sokcho
Author: Elisa Shua Dusapin
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 156 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Winter in Sokcho - US
Winter in Sokcho - UK
Winter in Sokcho - Canada
Hiver à Sokcho - Canada
Hiver à Sokcho - France
Ein Winter in Sokcho - Deutschland
Un invierno en Sokcho - España
directly from: Open Letter
directly from: Daunt Books
  • French title: Hiver à Sokcho
  • Translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

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Our Assessment:

B : neatly chilly understated tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 28/2/2020 Catherine Taylor
New Statesman . 13/5/2020 E. Peirson-Hagger
TLS . 10/4/2020 Y.G. Wuertz

  From the Reviews:
  • "Body dysmorphia abounds (...) 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" - Catherine Taylor, The Guardian

  • "Though slippery in its thematic effect, the language in this masterful short novel is to the point, written in sharp first-person and full of indirect speech." - Ellen Peirson-Hagger, New Statesman

  • "Winter in Sokcho, beautifully translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins, comes together slowly, like a Polaroid photo, its effects both intimate and foreign. (...) This is a winter to outgrow and to look back on. Dusapin's language, describing water, waves and fish, is precise and monumental, as if to suggest these things are settled and will never change; but the narrator's anxiety about Kerrand's art proves that everything is in flux, depending on the gaze." - Yoojin Grace Wuertz, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Winter in Sokcho in set in the South Korean town of Sokcho, a popular seaside tourist destination with a bustling beach in the summer -- but not a place many people venture to in the frigid winter.
       The border to North Korea isn't really very close -- it's sixty kilometers away -- but even at this distance there are tangible signs that there is still an ongoing conflict, with a coastline scarred: "by the line of electrified barbed wire fencing along the shore". The nameless narrator explains the ambiguous state the locals find themselves in, of trying to ignore an elephant in the room whose dimensions preclude doing so:

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 at any moment. We're living in limbo. In a winter that never ends.
       So also the twenty-four year-old had never even bothered to go visit the border; "Tourists are the only ones who come here", she explains when she accompanies a guest from the guest house where she works who, not having the right driver's license, couldn't visit it by himself. But, except for this brief foray to the border and a lingering vague sense of threat from the situation, the North-South divide and conflict mostly recedes into the background in Winter in Sokcho. Even beyond it, however, the narrator is living in very much in limbo.
       The narrator's father was a Frenchman whom her mother had a brief fling with; the daughter never got to know her father. She did go to university in Seoul -- studying French (and Korean) literature, no less -- but returned to her hometown, where her mother still lives, and took this absolute dead-end job at the guest house. If she has any ambitions they are, for now, of the vaguest sort: she scans the local classifieds and imagines at some point traveling to France, but she doesn't really make any effort to change her situation. She has a boyfriend, Jun-oh, but near the beginning of the story he leaves for Seoul, trying to get a place with a modeling agency; he comes back to visit, but the relationship doesn't seem to be very deep.
       The novel begins with the arrival of an unlikely stranger at the guest house, Frenchman Yan Kerrand. There are few guests -- and little reason to visit Sokcho -- at this time of year; among the few others at the guest house is a girl recovering from plastic surgery. Kerrand explains: "I needed peace and quiet", and he certainly can find that here.
       Kerrand draws comics -- bande dessinée --, and is working on the last volume of a series that has taken its archaeologist-hero around the world: "A different location for each book, a voyage in monochrome ink wash". Although he moves fairly certainly through this world he is visiting -- ripping open the packaging to sample paper at the local Lotte Mart (the narrator, flustered by his behavior, hiding the torn-open blocks under some binders in his destructive wake) --, and though he gets on with his work while in Sokcho, he too seems to be at something of a drawn-out crossroads. He isn't sure of how the story should go, and worries about finishing off the series with it:
     I think I'm afraid of losing it. This world, I'll have no control over it once it's finished.
       The sense one gets is that the narrator is living with a similar uncertainty.
       Kerrand's comics have: "No dialogue, very few words" -- and the protagonist is: "A lone figure. With a striking resemblance to the author" ..... He mostly goes his own way while at the guest house, not showing up for meals, even though they are included, for example. There is some interaction with the narrator, but he also keeps some distance. She, meanwhile, also deals with others, notably her mother, at whose home she stays (and whose bed she shares) on her one day off a week.
       Winter in Sokcho isn't event-full. Not much happens, not much is going on. A deep freeze freezes everything and everyone even more in place, and there's a listless character to both narrator and the situation. Yet underneath there is a buried simmering, occasionally rearing its head -- notably in the narrator's sudden fits of ravenous hunger and her stuffing her face.
       A preöccupation with physical appearance also pervades the story, from the long-term guest recovering from her plastic surgery to the narrator's concerns about a scar she has and her appearance more generally, like her glasses. Her boyfriend casually notes he'd be willing to undergo plastic surgery if that's what it would take to get into the modeling business in Seoul, while her mother offers to pay if she'd like to get anything done. Repeatedly, the narrator makes readers aware that she feels uncomfortable in her skin -- down to some of the clothes she wears --, part of the general sense of restless dissatisfaction that pervades the novel.
       The dominant sense in Winter in Sokcho is one of suggestion, a sense of the narrator emerging from the descriptions of her days that are largely humdrum and routine, even as little is made explicit by her. She seems adrift -- and unclear about what she can do; she barely seems able to conceive of changing her life, clinging, as an excuse, to the notion that she can't abandon her mother. The narrator is intrigued by Kerrand, and makes half-hearted stabs at interacting more closely with him but even as her desire becomes more profound -- "I wanted to live through his ink, to bathe in it. I wanted to be the only thing he saw" -- she finds it difficult to find away to act on it.
       The narrator's mother is an expert cook -- even licensed to prepare blowfish (fugu), the only fishmonger in Sokcho who is -- but in contrast to her deft handling of a knife, the narrator several times proves clumsy, cutting herself early on when she chops carrots, and then piercing the ink sac when preparing an octopus dish. Her mother says: "She's not to be trusted with a knife"; this too, quietly, features in the novel and its resolution. (As the narrator had told Kerrand earlier: "we're on a knife-edge, it could all give way at any moment".)
       Dusapin has a nice touch with her understated approach. Winter in Sokcho seems to proceed with the simple sameness of sleepy small-town winter, but much more is bubbling underneath here. Even a simple scene, such as the narrator catching a bug, have a chilly, deeper resonance:
Park told me to crush it but I didn't want to harm it. I never killed these beetles. I threw them out of the window to die outside in their own time.
       Kerrand's drawings are all black and white and gray; the narrator asks:
     "You never use color ?"
     "I don't see the point."
       Dusapin seems to feel similarly -- though there are occasional bright flashes in the novel. Overall, it's quite effective, making for a haunting, suggestive little story.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 April 2021

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Winter in Sokcho: Reviews: Other books by Elisa Shua Dusapin under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French-writing author Elisa Shua Dusapin was born in 1992.

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