• Madeleine Feeny

Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin, tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

‘He'd never understand what Sokcho was like. You had to be born here, live through the winters. The smells, the octopus. The isolation’

Sokcho is a popular South Korean seaside resort, only sixty kilometres from the North Korean border. In winter, it is a desolate purgatory of wind-lashed beaches and fishing boats: a city lying low till summer. The twenty-four-year-old narrator of this haunting debut novel is working at a run-down guesthouse – the kind of place people ‘wash up’ by accident – having felt duty-bound to remain near her mother after graduation. She’s never met her father, a French fishing engineer whose seduction and abandonment of her mother is still considered a local scandal.

Another Frenchman, Yan Kerrand, checks into the guesthouse. Initially, he ‘looked straight through me,’ but that starts to change when she cuts herself and he staunches the blood. She learns he’s an artist searching for inspiration for the final instalment in his comic book series. Intrigued, she offers to drive him to the North Korean border when he inquires about visiting. A cautious intimacy develops, conducted in English; although she speaks good French, she’s shy about using his mother tongue and prefers to connect on neutral ground.

When Kerrand asks if she has a boyfriend, she says no – although she does, Jun-oh, who leaves Sokcho to pursue a modelling career in Seoul. To achieve his goal, Jun-oh’s prepared to have plastic surgery, and suggests the narrator might consider it herself – everyone could do with a little help, especially if they want to find work in the capital. Physical appearances are highly valued by these characters, reflecting the statistic that South Korea has the highest rate of plastic surgery per capita in the world. Not only does Jun-oh hope to build a career on his, one of the guesthouse’s patrons – a bird-like woman-child who pecks at sugary snacks – is hiding from the world while healing from extensive facial surgery. The narrator watches her remove her bandages, a process described in brutal, dehumanising detail: ‘She looked like a burn victim, the face neither a man’s nor a woman’s. She dug a nail into her cheek and scratched. Rooted around.’

The narrator feels she is constantly being assessed, if not by Jun-oh – ‘judging me, making comparisons, measuring me, weighing me up’ – by her mother, who is obsessed with her daughter’s body and eating habits:

‘My hands began to shake. I hated it when she talked like that. You’re too thin. You should eat more. Don’t get too fat. It made me feel like slamming myself against the wall’

Food is both battleground and cornerstone of this mother-daughter relationship. A skilled fishmonger and cook, the mother passes her skills onto her daughter, and food preparation is described with the same cold precision as the human body – the methodical stuffing of squid, the slicing of translucent sea-flesh. The narrator is offended that Kerrand won’t taste the food she cooks at the guesthouse, choosing to subsist on Dunkin’ Donuts instead.

Over the traditional Seollal (Korean New Year) meal, the narrator’s aunt and mother discuss her as though she’s a prize cow. Squeezing her niece’s buttocks and thighs appraisingly, her aunt comments that she’s always thought her sickly looking. At such moments, the narrator fixates on food, gobbling compulsively to drown out the dialogue: ‘I’d stopped listening, I was eating, drinking. I’d lost all control.’

She relates such episodes with deadpan detachment, her observational eye as unsparing as her family’s criticism. ‘My aunt helped herself to more kimchi and chewed it, open-mouthed. Bits of pickled cabbage spurted out from between her lips and landed among the dishes, coating in a film of reddish saliva.’ Elisa Shua Dusapin’s flair for the grotesque is almost Swiftian. With its unwanted appetites and functions, the human body provokes anxiety and disgust. When Jun-oh takes a Polaroid photo, the narrator doesn’t recognise herself in the ‘wasteland of ribs and shoulder blades receding into the distance.’ At the public sulphur baths, she compares herself to other women, assessing them as ruthlessly as she does herself.

The only gaze she craves is Kerrand’s – for who sees more clearly than an artist? Night after night, she observes him sketching a female form, only to destroy it. Is he drawing her? Separated only by a thin wall, she lies in bed listening to the scratch of his pen, erotically imagining ‘his eyes travelling up, scrutinising the model’. When he goes home she feels exploited and discarded :

‘He had no right to leave. To leave with his story of Sokcho. To put it on display halfway across the world … I didn't want to be his eyes on my world. I wanted to be seen. I wanted him to see me with his own eyes. I wanted him to draw me’

But of course, Kerrand was always destined to return home – to a distant country without the spicy food he dislikes, or the lingering threat of war. When he mentions Normandy on their trip to the border, the narrator responds: ‘I’m sure there are scars on your beaches, but that’s all in the past. 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.’ Like Sokcho, waiting for summer to come, and the narrator, waiting for life to start, South Korea is holding its breath.

Sensitively translated from the original French, this expertly crafted debut takes us into the mind of a young woman who feels trapped by circumstances and stripped of autonomy. Stifled by her family’s relentless scrutiny and the unseeing eyes of others, she clutches at the chance of a new perspective. Yet can we ever really know or control how others perceive us? Written with ferocity and precision, this atmospheric story of unfulfilled desire builds to a tense climax. Winner of the Prix Robert Walser, it explores the conflict between family ties and individual freedom, and articulates what it means to be young, isolated and visible for all the wrong reasons.

Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins was published by Daunt Books Originals in February 2020.

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