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.
I don’t read anywhere enough out of my comfort zone, and that’s my loss. I’ve barely made a start on Japanese lit., let alone Korean, but the ones I’ve read all have a certain bleakness – Convenience Store Woman, Earthlings, The Memory Police. Of course readers of Korean lit. are welcome to tell me off for assuming Korean and Japanese have anything in common.
I often think novels selected for translation from many countries seem to be quite bleak or grim – I think this may be because “literary” novels are more likely to be translated than genre, and “literary” so often just means “bleak”.
That’s a very dispiriting answer, but probably true. Who since Jane Austen has written cheerful Literature?
I’m currently reading a novella translated from Korean, and it’s definitely an odd book. It’s billed as being like the novel Misery by Stephen king, but I’m halfway through and haven’t been frightened by anything. I’m starting to wonder if horror in Korea is just making other people very uncomfortable, and my book, and your book, it sounds like, are both achieve that. I hear Brits like to be left alone, especially in lines, so I wonder if you’re doubly horrified, LOL.
This is actually translated from French (the author is French-Korean, like the character, though I hope that’s where the similarities end), but yes, that does sound like this book. There’s so much invasion of personal space – it’s very effective, but as you say we are not a particularly touchy-feely people (especially in the south). I was definitely horrified by the constant invasion of this poor man’s privacy!
I recently learned about Complementary Schismogenesis, which means that when two different cultures get together and they both follow the rules of their own culture, one person may do a thing that the other isn’t used to, so responds accordingly with their own cultural norms. For example, if in one culture a person is “normal” when they stand really close to you, but your culture says you need personal space, you keep taking a step back, while the other person keeps moving in closer. Ack!
Pretty sure this isn’t for me, but it’s a clever cover! I’d be uncomfortable at the invasion of privacy aspects too, especially the clothes sniffing…
Yes, it’s a great cover! The clothes sniffing isn’t even the weirdest thing she does. Part of the discomfort is the book is the sense from the blurb that you’re meant to be siding with her, though actually having finished it I’m not at all sure that was the author’s intention.
How did I miss this? I read and reviewed this book last year. The food stuff was interesting but I don’t think I wrote about it as much as you did, and yes, I seem to recollect the description not really matching what I thought I was reading. It’s a good cover – both compelling and yet off-putting at the same time. Perhaps like the book. I enjoy voices like this but it was an interesting book to grasp. I would like to read her next book but I haven’t yet.
Are we supposed to side with her, or perhaps just understand her. She was so strangely unmotivated to do anything about her situation – and yet motivated at the same time. It felt very much like some of the Japanese lit I’ve read – a sort of dislocated tone,
I struggle a bit more with voices like this – I dislike these ambiguous narrators where I can’t work out how I’m meant to be responding. It takes me out of the story – if I’m trying to figure out intellectually how an author wants me to respond, I’m not “in” the story but observing it as an outsider. I much prefer to be immersed! Totally agree about the dislocated tone – I thought that was done very well.
Ah, that sort of explains something nicely Lou. Immersion versus intellectual engagement. I like immersion, but I also enjoy just being intellectually engaged. There are some books, some characters, we don’t (can’t) engage with emotionally, aren’t there, but for me, if the character is interesting and the writing inviting, I’m happy. In fact, sometimes immersive books can be distressing and so bring down my mood that I almost prefer the latter! (Not really prefer, but certainly perfectly enjoy.)