‘Winter in Sokcho’: an inspired, poetic debut from Elisa Shua Dusapin

Fancy a holiday on the Korean peninsula? Elisa Shua Dusapin takes you to the heart of Sokcho, a forgotten resort town, in her tense, beguiling debut.

Resort towns can’t escape melancholy. The lifeblood of these places is transient, and in the winter, most are all but empty. But what if this life is all you’ve ever known? This is the multidimensional image presented by Elisa Shua Dusapin in her debut novel, Winter in Sokcho (Scribe).

Already an award winner, the novel has received its first translation from French, courtesy of Aneesa Abbas-Higgins. And when you experience the powerful and sophisticated voice of Dusapin through her compassionately rendered characters, it’s easy to see why this debut has caused a sensation.

Elisa Shua Dusapin

Sokcho is situated on the Pacific Coast in South Korea, not far from its hostile neighbours to the north. Resplendent in the summer, the city takes on the windswept character of a frontier town in the depths of winter.

The unnamed protagonist has bounced between Seoul and Sokcho in the years leading up to this particular winter. Largely at a loose end, her life revolves around her work at a local, rundown hotel, visiting her single mother, and a dissatisfying love life with her boyfriend. The product of a fling between her mother and a Western father she’s never known, she struggles to belong.

When a mysterious foreign guest — a Frenchman named Yan Kerrand — arrives at the hotel, our hero begins to see her malaise-inducing surroundings in a different light. The two bond over his life in Normandy (and her imagining of it) and the stories of Maupassant.

The chemistry between the two is apparent, but their interactions are marked by reluctance, misreadings, and subtle, yet powerful judgements. On one hand, the protagonist dismisses Kerrand: “He’d never understand what Sokcho was like. You had to be born here, live through the winters. The smells, the octopus. The isolation.” And despite her invitations to sample her cooking, which largely revolves around the local traditional cuisine, Kerrand rebuffs the protagonist time after time. They’re hell-bent on keeping each other at arm’s length.

But still, the two forge an unlikely partnership. Kerrand, a cartoonist, is on the hunt for inspiration. Naturally, the aimless protagonist is a suitable tour guide, despite not knowing much of the local surroundings beyond the town. The two come to an observation point near the North Korean border, only for Kerrand to discover that his guide had never been there. “You’ve never been here before? Out of a feeling of solidarity, I mean?” he asks her. Her reply: “Shedding a few tears behind a pair of binoculars? You call that solidarity?”

Winter in Sokcho

The ongoing existential threat of their perpetual rival to the north, the underlying feelings of guilt the main character feels about her mother, the ennui of her failed relationship, the longing to escape, and feminine standards of beauty are all traversed in this novel. All of which works seamlessly in tandem with the tension the simmers between the two leads. Not to mention the moments of intoxicating imagery, as the protagonist describes the desolation of the Sokcho winter:

“Outside, against the onslaught of ice, the waves struggled to resist, moving ever more slowly and heavily, cracking as they collapsed in defeat on the shoreline.”

This deceptively slight volume carries these themes with grace. Dusapin’s style elevates a banal, claustrophobic experience and imbues it with hope and a sense of self-discovery. Winter in Sokcho washes over you like a dream.

Winter in Sokcho is out now via Scribe.