Winter in Sokcho, by Elise Shua Dusapin (translated by Anisa Abbas Higgins), is a strange novella set – as the name very much implies – in winter in Sokcho, South Korea. The first person narrator, whose name we never learn, is a young French-Korean woman who works as a sort of cook/receptionist/maid-of-all-work in a run-down guest house near the border with North Korea. It’s mostly deserted in winter, Sokcho being a beach destination. One day a French graphic novelist named Kerrand checks into the hotel, wanting peace and quiet to work on his book, and the narrator’s life begins to slowly unravel. This was a a complete impulse buy over Christmas – I was in a charity shop, saw the cover, read the blurb, and decided to give it a go.

This is another case – I’ve had several recently – where the blurb appears to be for a completely different book from the one I actually read. The blurb sort of implies that Kerrand is rude to the narrator, orientalising or exocitising her, demanding that she show him the “authentic Korea” as inspiration for his story but refusing to visit the places that are important to her, perhaps relying on her for labour while ignoring her. In fact, her behaviour is much more unsettling than his: she spies on him through cracks in his bedroom door, sniffs the clothes he brings her for laundering, keeps volunteering to take him places when he wants to be left in peace, sneaks into his bedroom to look through his art when he’s not there… I mean, I’m really just scratching the surface of how strange her behaviour is, but as the novel progresses I think it edges into spoiler territory.

The narrator is clearly very troubled, especially in terms of her relationship to food and her body. At times she berates herself for being obese, at other times for being able to see her ribs; she is constantly trying to push her own cooking on Kerrand, who prefers to make instant noodles in his room, but she also seems revolted by the food she makes. (Incidentally, I love Korean food and there are a couple of great restaurants in my city, but I think after reading this it will be a while before I visit one again, so that’s an indiciation of how effective the writing is). It’s not surprising that she’s such a mess on this subject, since her mother, boyfriend, and aunt all tell her to get plastic surgery over the course of the novella; her mother, in particular, tells her off at various points for being both too fat and too thin, all while pushing her to eat much more than she prefers.

I wasn’t at all sure about this book as I was reading it, but there was enough in it to keep me reading, and then it redeemed itself unexpectedly towards the end. To say why would, of course, be spoilers. Even though this isn’t going to become a favourite, I was impressed by the brooding atmosphere and vivid descriptions. I think Dusapin is probably a very good writer (this won all sorts of prizes last year) but I don’t think her work is for me.