Book Review – Winter in Sokcho by Élisa Shua Dusapin

books, reviews


How do you decide which books to buy? Since being on Instagram, I have found my number of impulse buys increasing. It’s so difficult to see the beautiful covers in people’s photos and then not buy. This book was one of those buys. I’d seen a photo posted by poppymaeve and knew that I had to find out more about it. Once I had the synopsis then I knew it was a book that I had to read. There’s nothing I love more than a simple plot that turns into a great character and that’s what this sounded like.

Winter in the tourist town of Sokcho can be pretty bleak. Though a bustling Summer holiday spot, Sokcho becomes more like a ghost town in Winter. The unnamed narrator of Élisa Shua Dusapin’s debut novel is stuck working in a rundown and almost empty guesthouse. She’s facing a boring and long Winter season until a stranger walks in requesting a room. The stranger is Yan Kerrand, a French graphic novelist who is looking for inspiration for his latest book. What follows is a slow-burning and emotional dance between the two as they experience Sokcho together.

The stranger remains even more of a mystery to us than the narrator throughout the novel. It is unclear why he chose to visit during Winter or what he’s hoping to find. What is he hoping to get from her? His presence brings up intense feelings in the narrator who has never met her own French father. This makes sure that the novel is covered by an uneasy sense of her own daddy issues. Just what is she hoping to get from this man? The narrator has clearly been trying to replace her father with other things. She studied French but is too afraid to talk to Kerrand in his mother tongue. Instead, the two converse in English but talk or Normandy and French artists. She is desperate for him to try her cooking but he prefers to eat instant noodles in his room.

This is a theme that runs throughout the novel. Identity is a key issue and all the narrator wants is for Kerrant to see her. When he first arrives, he looks through her and pays no attention. Desperate to make an impact, she keeps putting herself in his way and agreeing to spend time with him. His exoticism is a stark contrast to her home, which becomes a key character in the novel. Dusapin’s writing is incredibly descriptive and sensory. We become immersed in the sights and smells of the town. The murky greys and whites that have taken over the Summer haven. The smells of the fish market. It is no wonder that the narrator is so captivated by Kerrand’s home.

No wonder that her interactions with the stranger take over her life. Since returning to Sokcho after attending university in Seoul, she has been putting her life on hold. She uses plenty of excuses for why she can’t leave and start her life. She can’t leave her mother, she is happy working at the guest house, and she is in a relationship with an aspiring model boyfriend. Just a Sokcho is on a knife-edge on account of being on the border between South and North Korea, the arrival of Kerrand creates tension between the narrator’s real-life further away from her dream life. The writer’s creativity opens her eyes to the possibility of rewriting her story and of being seen. Her real-life is full of body issues, a complicated relationship with her family, and a boyfriend she doesn’t love. Both in a sort of stasis, Sokcho and the narrator are one and the same.

Winter in Sokcho is a fantastic book that will keep you hooked despite its simplistic story. The writing is abrupt and to the point. It is devoid of a lot of emotion but you still get that punch of feelings. We never know a great deal about any of the characters here but it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to know. This isn’t the story of who the woman becomes but who she is during this period. It is about the effect that Kerrand’s presence has on her. This is a book that delights in capturing a moment in time and preserving it. The writing might feel cold and almost clinical but it is beautiful in its own way. Dusapin really brings the town to life. It doesn’t waste time with poetic flourishes but gets to the point. It hooks you in and makes it difficult to leave.

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