Book Review: Winter in Sokcho, by Elisa Shua Dusapin
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.
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.
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.
Book Review: Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile, by Alice Jolly
Many moons ago, at my
special measures secondary school, my love for history was most definitely not
ignited. We learnt by rote modern German history in the main, with a thimbleful
of revolutionary Russian just to mix things up. Fascinating as modern European
history undeniably is, my historical knowledge of the UK was … lacking. Not any
more. Not thanks to novels. So I was at first happy to be reading and reviewing
this book. Having been a fan of historical fiction for many a year now, I was
drawn to its bulk. Nothing like a big, fat story to get lost in. Give me any
era, from commercial to literary, but I love especially the Tudor period, my
biggest loves being Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel, different ends of the literary
spectrum. So hurrah to receive a copy of the beautifully packaged Mary Ann
But I hadn’t quite
computed the fact that the 600-odd pages were written in vernacular prose
poetry. I love poetry, but not 600-odd pages of one poem. And I thought: am I
clever enough for this? Can my soggy old brain compute? The literary and
literal heft of the book felt off-putting, the narrative told in the voice and
language of a Victorian orphan in the Stroud Valleys of the 1830s, a plain slip
of a girl with a hare lip. An apparent imbecile. Not Tudor, nor very linear.
Was such a book for the likes of me?
But soon the rhythm and
pace and language of the narrative opened up Mary Anne Sate’s tale, and there I
was in rural Gloucestershire, as if being whispered the story from the
protagonist. Tiny, hare-lipped orphan Mary Ann Sate – persecuted for her “devil’s
mark” and dismissed as a halfwit – is taken in by Mr Harland Cottrell as a
servant in the Stroud Valleys of the 1830s. Living in total obscurity, she dies
without leaving a trace, it seems, beyond a single line in the local death
register: “Mary Ann Sate, 9 October 1887, Imbecile”. But Mary Ann was cleverer
and more observant than those around her credited.
With the inevitable march of industrialist England playing out in the background, the burgeoning trade unionism, the Chartists, the history is very much a minor but important character in the novel. Mary Ann narrates her childhood and adolescence, living within numerous households, experiencing the whims of her masters – sometimes kind, often cruel, her harelip and alleged imbecility often commented upon. But as we learn, Mary Ann is not an imbecile. She is a storyteller, and she is a scholar, a reader, a dreamer, a visionary, though not any of these things openly – someone from her sex and station wasn’t allowed to be any of those things, not in those times, maybe not in ours. She’s not a Christian but she sees angels, like Blake. She writes like Gerald Manley Hopkins, infusing observation of natural world with spirituality. Blake and Hopkins are a potent mix. This is history from the point of view of the forgotten, the unimportant, the millions of people who’ve walked the earth before us who never get the chance to get into history books. Fictional, yes, but upon finishing the book I raised a drink to the many women who worked, mothered, dreamt and died before us, all but forgotten.
The first cartoon they
watched was about three bears. Binge-watching on the laptop, snuggled close on
the big bed, vast again – no, tall – a long man taking up all the space with
his tall long man-legs, her teenage son, Charlie, losing the grip of early adulthood
and the hard planes of his beautiful face softening back into childhood,
letting her back in again, briefly.
The bears were orphans,
one a grizzly – one a polar bear, one a panda – and they’d met as cubs,
estranged and adrift in a new, foreign land, and quickly saw in each other what
connected them, not what made them different. And they became a family, living
amongst humans in San Francisco. They got up to scrapes – misadventures – but they
had good hearts and had a fierce and binding love for each other.
Those three bears saved
their lives for a bit.
His end had come when
they had been driving. He’d lost it over something small, meaningless – the way
she breathed or blinked or swallowed or something like that – the way she
lived, that she did live, her existence, that she dared to take up
space, breathe air – and after the huff and puff of loud words and spitted-spat
anger he’d stopped the van, leant over, undid the seat belt and pushed her from
She landed badly, and he
And then he quickly came
back again, and he waited as the engine idled for her to get back in the
passenger seat, drag her hurt body up, and he drove her home as she bruised
next to him, huddled in her seat, too sore for the seat belt, and he left her
there on the porch, and he’d sped into the dust-pink-purple storm, ramming his
foot down hard on the accelerator, his old van gasping, dragging along the
arterial island road one final time, circling that island of rocks, fat seals
on boulders on the grey stony shore, mooing to the half visible moon as his
bony, stubbled jaw jutted out, determined to get away as quick as he possibly
That young woman who’d
once had light in her eyes, forgotten – what had happened to her, where had she
gone? Middle-aged and scared of her husband. He’d always had a temper on him,
flashes of rage from time to time. Hot-headed. Always in a rush, always some
unfinished business. But it had got worse as he’d got older.
Later that day he’d lost
control of the wheel, his thin bones snapping; he crossed the line of the edge
of land, of life, smashed the rusty old van into a billion screeches of
metallic bone, the white grit of his skeletal dust sanding the rocky shore, his
innards afterwards washing into the salt of the sea. The storm had come
suddenly, and worsened quickly and soon he was in it, soon he was storm, soon
storm was him. Hiding him in a plug of mist and the smack of thunder, the
clatter of lightening.
The fat seals stayed put,
watching his life end, his spirit come to nothing, after all. The fat seals
mooed to the moon some more, eyes wide.
Charlie had answered the
door to the police and had stood with them and his mother, gaming headset
pushed back off his ears, and he’d put his young adult arms around her, held on
to her hard, his fingers gripping the ends of her hair like they had when he
was a baby, wordless words of what the fuck.
Don’t worry, mum, we’ll
They would be fine.
She put the kettle on,
the English mother.
The kettle clicked to its
finish and when she smelt the straw piss steam of herbal tea she poured it
straight down the sink. Now she could have anything. Proper tea. A coffee. Or
glass of water.
She had a big glass of
wine, an old Christmas present she’d not been allowed to drink but which had
been kept in the cupboard under the sink all these years, nestled with the
spiders and the drip of washing-up water leaking into the old wood. It tasted
like shit, but still she savoured the bitter vinegar of the ancient grape.
Night had come, and she
raised a glass to that dark island night and she felt her heart calm and her
The next morning brought
with it a new debit card, the woman’s name only, not his, access to a PIN.
Something she hadn’t had for years now. All his money he’d been squirrelling
away, all those years. He’d been rich but had enforced such austerity on them.
She set off with a limp
to the bus stop, putting the weight on her right leg, her left hip still
hurting from the pushed drop onto the cold, hard edge of island road. Everyone
there drove, so the bus was empty, the quiet calm claiming her for that half
hour, up-hill and down, along the same road that kept circling the island.
In town she kept her eyes
down, averted, not looking for people she knew. But the gossips circled, their
antenna for fresh gossip fodder atwitch as ever, the blonde plump head of the
school’s PTA trying to catch her eye. She avoided eye contact and kept away.
She bought that day in
the big supermarket in town: new cotton sheets for her and Charlie, pillows
made of feathers, woollen blankets, sugar and soft white bread and full fat
milk and butter and hot chocolate and cakes and no wholefoods, no grains or
seeds or anything fat free or any food with no joy, no comfort, no food that
did its job and nothing more. Wheeling her trolley one-handed.
A taxi home, the first
taxi she’d been in for a long, long time. Emissions, pollutions, carbon
footprints – the mantra of guilt she’d been listening to for so long, his
rusted hunk of van exempt from the worldly concerns of an environmental
worrier, the animal lover, the nature lover. The wife beater.
The taxi driver didn’t
talk to her, but he was kind, and he helped unload the purchases, carrying them
for her to the front door, the woman limping behind. She thanked him, not quite
managing eye contact, mumbling polite, meaningless words and then Charlie came
out, having come off his computer, and helped carry the shopping indoors as the
taxi drove off.
Her left shoulder was
still very painful.
After lunch they watched
together a cartoon about a boy whose mother had died in childbirth. She had
been an alien, come on a recce to Earth when she’d met and then fallen in love
with a human. So the now teenage boy too was half alien, half human. His mother
had come from her glacial planet far away, populated by these beautiful alien
gem-stones, all hard beauty with cores of goodness and strength, all female.
The boy – her son – was raised motherless on planet Earth by his socially
awkward but gentle human father, living in a sleepy beach town somewhere in
One day when three aliens
arrived from his mother’s planet, seeking answers to where their comrade had
gone, what had happened to her, they came across the boy, her son. He was so
very much like her, in personality if nothing else. And they fell a bit in love
with him, becoming a trio of crystal alien surrogate mothers, each embodying
different strengths and qualities they wanted to pass on to the boy: strength,
And between them and the
human father they raised the boy, parented him imperfectly but with love and
kindness, and they had adventures, on this planet and beyond. And they loved
each other, and they were a family, of sorts.
The woman slept those
nights star-fished out, catching sleep like love, feeling it fix her.
When she was called into
the school to come and collect Charlie after another incident, she sat in the
foyer of the school and watched the people come and go, the parents and the
teachers and the students, the caretaker, the admin staff. Like actors, a
stage. The hub of the place, the heart of the building, life there just being,
Sat on the side-lines,
shadowed by years of trying not to stand out. Practising her invisible stare,
but watching all, all of them: skin-bagged bones, living bodies, stubbornly
ignoring the surrounding darkness, the finish, the flip side of life and wealth
and beauty. The end a skin’s width away from them all, even these polished,
blonde, healthy people, living their beautiful lives to the point, and on
The head of year called
her into the office and wanted to talk without Charlie there.
They knew, she said,
Charlie is dealing with a lot. A lot. More than someone his age should be
dealing with, shouldering the world. His grief. His mother’s grief, and pain,
and the shadows of years of whatever they’d been through. Too much.
Circumstances. The head
of year kept talking of circumstances, this woman, this teacher of such little
substance, her practical little eyes, the short mousy hair, the vague,
reluctant kindness. Circumstances and policies, governors and governance. Other
parents, letting it go. He needs to apologise, and then we will draw a line.
Charlie apologised. He
said sorry, but his eyes were tired and they both just wanted to go home.
So a line was drawn.
And when they went to
leave the school, there they were: the blonde PTA woman with her blond,
footballer son, his left eye swollen and bruised, silent in shared judgement,
sentry-like at the entrance to the school. This is our territory. Hard-muscled
and sinewy, the pair of them. Hearts hard. Teeth bared, guarding their little
pit of paradise. Only functioning families welcome here, thank you very much.
Once home they ate
take-out pizza in bed, fat globs of melted cheese running down their fingers,
ravaged bites out of the slices, in all its rich, fatty, badness. Gorged. Drank
down by full fat coke by Charlie, a heavy, heady glass of red by his mum.
They watched a cartoon
about an orphaned human adrift in a new planet, his own having expired in a
mess of environmental disaster and war. He was the last human being alive and
was found eventually by a family of clever dogs, human-like as dogs go, fluent
in English, but without the cruelty and clamour of humanity. He became best
friends with his dog brother; he fell in love with a princess made of
The dog and the bubble
gum princess loved him back, this orphaned and very lost human boy. And they
were a family. Of sorts. And it turns out, at the end of the series, he wasn’t the
last human being after all – he eventually found his people.
The night Charlie spent
in hospital they let her sleep in a camp bed next to him, on a small paediatric
ward shared with younger children – a young boy who’d suffered a terrible
asthma attack, a little girl with a complicated wrist fracture, another girl
with some mysterious affliction which involved a drip and regular monitoring of
vitals and internal organs. And Charlie, taller than his mum and a teenager, a
young adult – no child – with his arm ribboned by self-inflicted cuts, having
written his pain and grief and rage into the skin of his beautiful young arm.
Words of woe and hurt, dressed and bandaged.
He woke in the middle of
the night and reached out for her, grabbing a handful of her hair and twisting
it around his fingers as he used to do, going back to sleep with his hands in
her hair. Never letting go. She stared dried-eyed into the strip-lit night of
the hospital, feeling their world turning, the stony rock island dipping slowly
into daylight as the other side of the planet started to greet night, the thrum
of electricity sending the hospital through the night, a spaceship in the dark.
He stayed off school for
a few days after that, sewn up and cleaned. And he seemed back to himself a
bit. Losing the hunch of whatever had been haunting him, the shadows in his
eyes, beneath his eyes, the grey paint of pallor that sadness had brought.
He’d talked to a young
psychiatric nurse, a gamer, a fellow anime fan, with his big bushy ginger beard
and lumberjack shirt, and his piercings. A different kind of man to what he was
used to. They’d talked with her outside the room, shutting the door as she sat
in the hospital corridor. And whatever had been said seemed to bring with it
some sort of cleanse – relief and release. After that his appetite returned, he
began to eat again, began to sleep better. The grey pain faded.
It was on one of the days
at home after hospital when he was kept off school that they decided they’d
leave the island, get away from the blond footballers with their PTA mothers,
those perfect lives, functioning families with their day planners and social
lives, away from the rules and regulations, the hierarchies of parents and
children, and the well-meaning but stressed and overextended teachers.
The shack became their
bubble, and it’s when they finally started to heal and look forward again.
They watched those days:
a series of cartoons about a goldfish boy adopted by a family of cats, a family
without much money and a rather chaotic existence, living in too close proximity
in a small but cosy home, but a family safe in its order and love, and both the
young male cat and the goldfish – who should have been sworn enemies – learnt to
live with each other and accept their differences, attending a school which
included within its cohort a tyrannosaurus rex, a rabbit, a thin, grumpy simian
teacher. All different, all learning to tolerate and harmonise. Family, of
Eventually she sold the
shack with the help of a white-toothed and gurning estate agent. It went for a
fair price, with all its environment-saving features and quirks, the dead man’s
hardy work, because if nothing else he’d been always been good with his hands,
and hardy, and a hard worker. That cabin, that shack in the fruit trees with
its solar panels and vegetable patches and sustainable flooring. With the clementines
and lemons big and fat on the branches, the berries and the vegetables and the
obscene abundance of freshly grown food, that man, green-fingered and tender with
plants. Washed out into the Pacific now, his body sanded into the blind depths
As they sat on the porch,
the sun setting on the soon-to-be left behind island life, they watched the
flashing lights of airplanes taking off from the nearby airport. Their flights
home were all booked, packing boxes ordered mainly for Charlie’s things – his
clothes and books and computer hardware. She wanted to leave her past there,
leave the crumbs of her married self, right there on that little crop of rocks,
the island of stone, on the other side of the world.
The emails were written
and sent; all the handmade recycled furniture was for sale on a local forum,
selling eventually for a fair bit of money, enough for Charlie to buy himself
some new games for his handheld console for the interminable flights back to
Heathrow. That safe zone of his contained by games, the kept world of rules and
escape. It had got him through, though, whatever the screen naysayers had said.
And it would again.
They sold the shack to a
Japanese artist, who liked the isolation, liked that the nearest other humans
were miles away. She craved the cramped humanity of London, felt the closed
dirty air of pollution in her lungs already.
As the airplane left the
island and pointed them up, up, away, pointed its thin metal nose towards their
home, the other side of the world, that place she had left over his decade ago,
leaving bright-eyed, tail bushy, young and hopeful wed to this tall, muscled
man from the other side of the world, she left him again, finally, moved away
from his bones washing into the ocean, his brain that had become sand, the
tattoo on his skin that had now faded into nothing, the plane pointing her back
home from where she came.
They became airborne,
borne into the air, the airplane stopping its reach higher and higher. The
seatbelt light pinged off, the cabin staff walking the aisles, beginning the
endless rounds of refreshment and service.
They put the screen on
and began to watch a new cartoon, about a single mum and her young son who
lived in a futuristic city. Back in the day – before her son was born – the mum
had been a superwoman, a superhero, with KAPOW! powers that defeated evil, for
the power of the good. Not so much now, her former super powers kept hidden, as
well as the paternity of her son. Her existence was humdrum.
They lived a happy enough
life, with no father and not much money at all, in a small and ramshackle
apartment but an apartment which was nevertheless a home.
But when a killer robot
descended upon the town threatening the destruction of the planet, of humanity
and life itself, the mum’s former superhero skills kicked back in and she
revealed to her son her true self, and the mum saved her young son’s life and
then together the mum and son made an awesome team, formidable, tight and
strong, and they ended up saving the whole world from an evil maverick
scientist and his swarm of evil killer robots.
Once the baddies had been
defeated and the sun had come out again, they retreated back to their modest
home, and sat down to eat spaghetti together, the harmony of their world
Charlie was asleep, his
long legs curled up, his hand in her hair grasping the ends.
From the small window she
watched night come, the fade of dark above the clouds, the plane reaching
through stars and planets and galaxies, taking them through worlds and lives
and dreams, all the way home.