Winter in Sokcho is the first book by Franco-Korean author Eliza Shua Dusapin. Published in 2016, Winter in Sokcho won the Prix Robert Walser and Prix Régine Desforges awards and translated into six languages. Since it is very short and beautiful, it ended in one sitting. It reminded me how important the setting of the story is, at least to me. It was also one of the lovely books that I am glad to read.
Winter in Sokcho takes place in Sokcho, which is located on South Korea’s border with North Korea, during the winter months. Sokcho is a town famous for a television show, where Koreans spend their summers. As you can imagine, it turns into a little dead town in winters; The number of tourists is almost non-existent.
The story revolves around the Franco-Korean narrator in her twenties. We do not learn the name of the narrator throughout the book. However, if we look at her relationships and loneliness in Sokcho, we can see that she is an outlier. The narrator’s mother falls in love with a French man who came to Sokcho, and she becomes pregnant. But the French man leaves Sokcho and never returns; Our narrator’s mother also turns into a character who is condemned and somewhat ostracized in this tiny town just because she was in love. She makes her living by selling seafood, which is one of the few things to do in Sokcho.
Therefore, our narrator is born and grows as a great element of curiosity. She feels inadequate and develops an unhealthy relationship with food due to the comments she heard from her mother and those around her, both while growing up and after growing up. There is a lot of emphasis on how she looks and how she is still single despite her age (24). And that tells a lot about the life of women in Korea.
When she reaches a certain age, the narrator leaves Sokcho for a while only to go to university, and she studies French at university. Since she cannot leave her mother alone, she leaves her boyfriend behind as soon as the university ends and returns to Sokcho and starts work.
On the other hand, her boyfriend is an insignificant type who pursues his dreams of becoming a model, and we don’t know much about him. But we can clearly see that he doesn’t care about our narrator as he should be. However, he never hesitates in telling our narrator that if she is going to work in Seol, she should get an aesthetic operation and say what he feels when it comes to himself and his worries and needs. Winter in Sokcho subtly tells the message rather than shout it to the reader, which creates a more significant impact.
The narrator works as a cook and cleaner in a run-down hotel that is not at its best, and occasionally she works at the reception. There are only a few people in the hotel since they are in the middle of winter. A girl wrapped in bandages for having her face aestheticized and her partner, and a few more people who took the hotel as a base to climb the mountain.
Then one day, when the narrator is at the reception, Kerrand, the French comic artist, comes and books a room to stay in for a while. The strange relationship that instantly develops between these two signals a lot about what will happen. From now on, Winter in Sokcho becomes even more fun and exciting.
Kerrand attracts attention both because he is an artist and because he is in Sokcho at this unlikely time. However, this man is most curious about our narrator and vice versa. Kerrand says he seeks serenity for inspiration while working on his latest comic. The series he is working on sounds so beautiful that I wished it was real; An archaeologist travelling to various parts of the world. However, this archaeologist is always alone, just like Kerrand, and there is no woman to accompany him in any of the comics. So we see that two outliers ran into each other in a small town at an unlikely time.
Winter in Sokcho also mentions the tension between North and South Korea from time to time. It makes the reader think about these two countries and their people. It also touches on Korean culture and food and leaves you curious to learn more. What struck me the most was Korea’s obsession with aesthetics and that people, especially women, could not cope with how they looked. I couldn’t help thinking about popular K-pop groups and Korean dramas; how smooth, flawless and perfect everyone looks.
The end of Winter in Sokcho seemed very unexpected and unsatisfactory to me at first. But upon reflection, I decided that this would be the case and that this should be the most logical one. Frankly, I can’t wait to discuss this ending with my book club.
Have you ever spent time in a popular summer town in winter? I spent time in many different places. While recovering from the past summer, the shopkeepers who calculate their money to be earned in the following summer, the roads that are walked on and the scenery that is looked at are all resting. In such an environment, the conversations are more restrained and calm; everything from the music listened to the books read pursues a little more peace and relaxation.
As if no one wants to break that beautiful silence. Laughter is replaced by smiles, shouting and dancing are replaced by silently sitting and thinking. And I love it. Winter in Sokcho created exactly this beautiful atmosphere for me, and I relive all those quiet days.
Winter in Sokcho is a good book; the only downside is that it is short. If you want to be teleported to a Korean town in the middle of winter and enjoy good writing, please read this. Enjoy!
Winter in Sokcho
As if Marguerite Duras wrote Convenience Store Woman – a beautiful, unexpected novel from a debut French Korean author
It’s winter in Sokcho, a tourist town on the border between South and North Korea. The cold slows everything down. Bodies are red and raw, the fish turn venomous, beyond the beach guns point out from the North’s watchtowers. A young French Korean woman works as a receptionist in a tired guesthouse. One evening, an unexpected guest arrives: a French cartoonist determined to find inspiration in this desolate landscape.
The two form an uneasy relationship. When she agrees to accompany him on trips to discover an ‘authentic’ Korea, they visit snowy mountaintops and dramatic waterfalls, and cross into North Korea. But he takes no interest in the Sokcho she knows – the gaudy neon lights, the scars of war, the fish market where her mother works. As she’s pulled into his vision and taken in by his drawings, she strikes upon a way to finally be seen.
An exquisitely-crafted debut, which won the Prix Robert Walser, Winter in Sokcho is a novel about shared identities and divided selves, vision and blindness, intimacy and alienation. Elisa Shua Dusapin’s voice is distinctive and unmistakable.
‘Beautifully translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins, comes together slowly, like a Polaroid photo, its effects both intimate and foreign.’ — TLS
‘A masterful short novel’ — New Statesman
‘A punchy first novel.’ — Guardian Top 10 Best New Books in Translation
‘Enigmatic, beguiling… This finely crafted debut explores topics of identity and heredity in compelling fashion. In its aimless, outsider protagonist there are echoes of Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman.’ — Irish Times
‘The bustling seaside resort of Sokcho in South Korea is the perfect backdrop for this quietly haunting debut.’ — Daily Mail
‘Crisp and poetic.’ — i
‘Dazzling.’ —Vogue Top Five Debuts
‘Oiled with a brooding tension that never dissipates or resolves, Winter in Sokcho is a noirish cold sweat of a book.’— Guardian
‘Elisa Shua Dusapin’s first-person narrative is formed of crystalline sentences that favour lucid imagery to describe themes of loneliness, familial obligation, identity, societal pressures and sexuality.’ — ArtReview Asia
‘A fascinating portrait of life in modern Korea.’ — S Magazine
‘(A) haunting portrait of an out-of-season tourist town on the border between North and South Korea … The story that unfolds is chilling.’ — Monocle
‘Winter in Sokcho is a tale heavy with tension and melancholy … A poignant coming of age story.’ — The Hourglass
‘A masterpiece.’ — Huffington Post
‘A vivid, tactile, often claustrophobic, and gorgeously written novel. An absolute joy from beginning to end.’ — Lara Williams, author of Supper Club
‘Narrated in an elegant, enigmatic voice that skilfully summons the tenderness and mutability of an inner life, Winter in Sokcho is a lyrical and atmospheric work of art.’ – Sharlene Teo, author of Ponti
‘A spellbinding debut novel, Winter in Sokcho is about intimacy and alienation in a remarkable setting.’ – i-D Magazine Best Books of 2020
‘A tender and poetic first novel.’ – Le Monde
‘Mysterious, beguiling, and glowing with tender intelligence, Winter in Sokcho is a master class in tension and atmospherics, a study of the delicate, murky filaments of emotion that compose a life. Dusapin has a rare and ferocious gift for pinning the quick, slippery, liveness of feeling to the page: her talent is a thrill to behold.’ – Alexandra Kleeman, author of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine
‘I haven’t encountered a voice like this since Duras – spellbinding.’ – ELLE (France)
‘Atmospheric, exquisitely written and highly charged.’ – Olivia Sudjic, author of Sympathy
‘Remarkable in its formal daring and maturity.’ – Lire
Elisa Shua Dusapin
Elisa Shua Dusapin, born 23 October 1992 in Sarlat-la-Canéda, France, is a Franco-Korean writer currently living in Switzerland. In 2016, Elisa Shua Dusapin published her first novel, Hiver à Sokcho, which won numerous awards, including the Prix Robert-Walser, Prix Alpha and the Prix Régine-Deforges. Her second novel, Les Billes du Pachinko, was published in 2018.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges: