A slender and carefully crafted work of fiction, Winter in Sokcho could easily be read in an afternoon but warrants more dedicated attention. The story is set in the tourist town of Sokcho, about 160 kilometers from Seoul and 60 kilometers from the North Korean border. With its beaches, hot springs, and abundant seafood, Sokcho is a popular summer destination. Winter, however, is cold and bleak, and this somber atmosphere permeates the narrative.
The unnamed protagonist works at a rundown guest house where she half-heartedly goes about greeting and registering guests, cooking, and cleaning rooms. That she remains unnamed alludes to her evasive nature. Not only does she reveal little about herself, but she is also uncertain about the identity she wants to embrace.
The story begins with the arrival of a French visitor at the guest house. She learns his name, Yan Kerrand, as she helps him fill out the registration paperwork. Over the course of the few weeks that transpire during the narrative, the two develop a relationship that is both fluid and rife with boundaries.
Kerrand is the author of a series of illustrated books that are centered on a sense of place, and he visits Sokcho for inspiration and research. He depends on the narrator and her willingness to travel–and his need for a translator–to conduct his research. Although they travel together, they remain separate, each sensing an interest in the other but neither yielding to it. Their trip to the nearby border with North Korea provides an opportunity for her to contemplate her identity as part of a divided nation and divided culture.
As it becomes clear that the narrator sees her identity rooted in Sokcho, she is bothered that the Frenchman seems to have little interest in the town. She reveals early on that she is French-Korean: although her father seduced her mother and disappeared, 23 years later the Sokcho locals have not forgotten her origins. She carries this with both shame and pride and chooses not to disclose the story to Karrand, although she does tell him that she studied Korean and French literature at university in Seoul.
The South Korean cultural obsession with plastic surgery plays into the narrator’s contemplation of identity as well. A young woman who has had plastic surgery, occasionally accompanied by her boyfriend, is a long-term guest at the house. The narrator observes the process as the woman’s bandages change over the weeks, moving closer to revealing her newly restructured face.
That identity is reflected in appearance underscores the presence of the woman who seems both isolated and unhappy. The narrator’s mother, who is a fishmonger in Sokcho, encourages the narrator to consider plastic surgery that will transform her appearance and give her a chance to find a better job.
Like the character she has created as the narrator of her first novel, author Elisa Shua Dusapin is French-Korean. Having grown up in Paris, Seoul, and Switzerland, Dusapin draws from her own challenges of entwined cultures and a feeling of not belonging to any of these places. This lack of belonging pulls together the narrator and Kerrand, both isolated from culture and family.
Yet having two people come together because they feel adrift seems perilous at best. The narrator struggles to establish trust in others, possibly reflecting a lack of trust in herself. Although not explicitly revealed in the protagonist’s narration, these tangled complications form a foundation for personal interactions throughout the novel. Because of the spareness of Dusapin’s writing, much is left for the reader to contemplate in what promises to be a rich reflection.