It’s the dead of winter in Sokcho, a popular seaside resort in South Korea near the North Korean border. The tourists have disappeared for now except, oddly, a Frenchman bundled in a woolen coat arrives at Old Park’s shabby guesthouse that’s not even listed in the guide books. He’s an accomplished graphic novelist intent on completing his final book in a celebrated series, looking for inspiration. He wants peace and quiet. The 24-year-old desk clerk, who is also the guesthouse maid and cook, and our narrator, describes him as “Western face. Dark eyes. Hair combed to one side.” Then she says, “He looked straight through me, without seeing me.” It’s not arrogance, we will learn in this alluring story: Yan Kerrand sees only for the purpose of his creative work.
Winter in Sokcho is the 2021 National Book Award winner for translated literature. The story is told in brief chapters, building a bewitching interplay between Kerrand and the unnamed girl.
She speaks fluent French from her school studies (her absent father is French) and so becomes the perfect answer to Kerrand’s need for someone to show him the region. They travel to the observation point and museum at the north-south border, and to a temple built into cliffs above the sea. Kerrand invites her to have dinner with him at a quiet fish stand. During these times together, he brushes his fingers against her shoulder, warms her cold fingers in his hand, compliments her red dress. It would seem to be he’s flirting, except Kerrand also brushes his fingers over a tree trunk, across an ice-covered rock, along stone statues at the temple. It’s tactile knowledge and visions he’s collecting for his art.
In return for acting as his tour guide, the narrator requests Kerrand show her his sketches. He hesitates, reluctant to allow an opening into his raw imagination, but then agrees. One day he teaches her to see the exceptional in his drawings achieved by working in shades of grey. He tells her what matters is the light shaping what you see. In moments like this one, author Elisa Shua Dusapin emphasizes her edifying theme of what we fail to see that’s right in front of us.
Looking again, I realized I didn’t see the ink. All I saw was the white space between the lines, the light absorbed by the paper, the snow bursting off the page, real enough to touch.”
The girl narrates in a confident yet gentle voice, sure of herself and her love for her native Sokcho, its brightly painted roofs, fishy smells from the market stalls and restaurants, and winter isolation. She’s also devoted to her mother, the only fishmonger in the city with a license to prepare a mouthwatering delicacy — the poisonous blowfish — and to her boyfriend who’s attending modeling school in Seoul. And yet, as her time with Kerrand progresses, it unlocks what our narrator calls her unfamiliar self, which considers the world beyond Sokcho.
Winter temperatures freeze the radiator pipes in Old Park’s guesthouse, specifically in the narrator’s side of the building, forcing her to move into a room next to Kerrand. She hears his pen scratches at night through the paper-thin wall. Meanwhile, her boyfriend returns for a visit and bumps into Kerrand in the corridor. Kerrand thereafter ignores the girl. She experiences his reserve more fiercely than before, her desire for him growing. She’s too independent to become demanding; however, she does strike out, with scorching words of truth.
Winter in Sokcho is an exquisitely crafted novel that captures an awkward relationship in cinematic scenes. The writing is eloquent, precise, clever. As we reach the end, there’s a subtle emotional shift, signaling a change in these two standout characters, but exactly how they’ve each changed isn’t clear. It’s a vague conclusion for this otherwise perfect and accomplished award-winning novel.
Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin is published by Open Letter and translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins. A version of this review ran on NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM, broadcasting throughout central Ohio.