A lockdown kind of life set in Korea

By Rhonda Dredge

Winter in Sokcho is set on the border between North and South Korea, a desolate chilly place where time rests heavily on the town and its inhabitants.

The narrator of the novel works in a tired guesthouse as a receptionist with just two guests in residence.

One guest is in bandages after extensive cosmetic surgery and the other is a cartoonist.

The cartoonist, an offhand 50-year-old Frenchman, offers hope to the narrator, a young woman whose mother is a fishmonger.

But the relationship between the underemployed receptionist and the European artist is a difficult one. 

Kerrand, the cartoonist, has come to Sokcho to find a story. Together, they visit sites in no man’s land to peer across the border at North Korea but generally they fail to develop the rapport the narrator craves. 

The cartoonist needs to find an image he can insert into the heroic adventures of his character and appears to be blind to her attentions. 

When a cold spell hits the town, which is regarded highly for its summer offerings rather than icy winter, the pipes freeze in the guesthouse, the heating fails and even the waves slow down to a crawl.

The narrator moves into the room next to the cartoonist and offers him food but is insulted when he refuses to try her dishes. 

He says he doesn’t like spicy food.

The local cuisine, based on intimate knowledge of the sea creatures off the shore – some with poisonous organs – evades his European tastes.

Kerrand has travelled the world setting his cartoons in exotic places and this is his final work but he fails to appreciate the artistry of the local culture of the town.

He prefers to spend most of his time in his room perfecting his drawing style.

It is not until the end of the novel that Kerrand finally acknowledges the narrator in his work.

The novel, a slim debut by French/Korean writer Elisa Shua Dusapin, could be read as an argument for decolonisation in that detailed immersive description is set against the vague scribblings of a foreigner. 

Yet the traditional lifestyle of Sokcho is quite limiting for the narrator who is stuck in a holding pattern, not wanting to depart for Seoul where facelifts are recommended if you want to get ahead. 

Dusapin was raised in Paris and Seoul and her intimate style suits the times with its light touch and feel for the particular.

The narrator she has created is shy and dutiful and rather charming about her lockdown kind of life •

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