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Located in South Korea, Sokcho is a small city that bustles in the summertime with tourists. It’s the gateway to many areas of natural beauty, including Seoraksan National Park – a small city that is a-thrum and a-hum with the motion of tourists throughout summer. But when the summer disappears, Sokcho empties of the commercial buzz; it loses the boost of transitory, touristy cash. In the winter the city battens down, the cold sweep of ice a constant from the nearby East Sea. And the shadow of North Korea falls pretty close.
It is in this bitterness of cold we meet the receptionist, half French and half Korean, in her twenties, working in a guest house, a guest house which still has guests, despite the lack of summer season. A French guest – Yan Kerrand – arrives, a graphic novelist, his work in motion. He seeks new ideas as he seeks new places to travel to. She is drawn to him, and he seems fairly intrigued by her too. A quiet friendship occurs, and she takes him to see many of the local tourist sights together. A relationship between the two always feels imminent; at one point their bedrooms are separated by a thin wall within the guesthouse, its narrow width separating these two worlds, paper-thin and yet impenetrable. Two worlds which can’t quite mesh.
Weaved throughout the story is the heroine’s relationship with her mother, a local fish woman. Fish feature throughout, literally, the food which feeds the frozen town through the blast of winter, cooked into various stocks and sauces, fish like the women, pummelled and pushed into shape, how they should look, how they should be – indeed, there is a woman recovering in the guest house from plastic surgery, quite literally pummelled and pushed into how she thinks she should look. There are octopuses, fish scales, gut and blood, slippery and surreal.
Winter in Sokcho reads like a muted fairy tale. We never quite get under the skin of the main characters, this girl in her guesthouse who is never named. It’s interesting that Yan Kerrand is a creator of other worlds – not quite from this one, not quite from another. But a creator and a recorder of stories nevertheless. The sex in the book is cold and clinical, the food constant, sustenance through the cold winter. The fish. There is no sunshine at any time in the narrative. It’s a cold and lonely place. And the fact that Sokcho borders the two Koreas – it feels like we’re on the edge of the world itself, the border of the world.
Winter in Sokcho is a dream novel, a brief glimpse into a young woman not quite coming of age, frozen in the ice of both her home city and her family situation. Her mother kills, chops and cooks fish. The French guest tries to capture the world he sees around with ink on paper. The receptionist is in stasis, trapped in the ice of this winter. Her French father abandoned her at a young age, his existence still a cause of gossip to the local women. A brief dream of a novel, which opens up our worlds.
Winter in Sokcho is published by Daunt Books.