Cool noir tension teetering on the edge of desire

  • Winter in Sokcho, by Elisa Shua Dusapin. Scribe, $22.99.

This slim, visceral and unnerving book begins when a foreigner checks into a guesthouse in the port city of Sokcho, South Korea.

The stranger is Yan Kerrand, a French cartoonist, who comes to the seaside resort, now deserted in the icy winter, looking for inspiration.

He's greeted by the unnamed narrator, a young woman and a Seoul university graduate, who cooks in the guesthouse.

She has returned to her hometown to be near her mother again.

Inspiration in icy Sokcho, however, is thin on the ground, so Kerrand turns to the narrator to show him the real Korea.

Together they visit mountains, temples and the even the border with the North.

Sokcho's proximity to North Korea is central to the work and to the narrator.

At one point, she berates the hapless foreigner for not understanding the impact of the Korean war, which has been going on for so long it has taken on a surreal quality.

In her eyes, the foreigner is searching for some elusive character or quality he won't find in her home town. "You had to be born here [to understand it], live through the winters. The smells, the octopus. The isolation."

The key to their uneasy relationship, which sometimes teeters on the edge of desire, is the France which Kerrand represents.

The narrator's father is French, but she has never met him. Although she studied French at university, she has never been to France.

At the novel's surprising close, she finally succeeds in getting a glimpse of the artist and his homeland, albeit one that is refracted through the sketchbook Kerrand leaves behind for her.

I did wonder if some of the weight of the original had been lost in translation - the novel was published in French in 2016 and translated into English in 2020 - especially given that the idea of France is something which snags the young narrator time and time again.

This is nonetheless a beautifully judged work.

Flashes of noir cool are interspersed with visceral descriptions of Sokcho.

There is the gutting and preparation of seafood, icy coastlines and traditional lunar New Year celebrations, juxtaposed with modern rituals.

These include plastic surgery, which everyone favours in order to improve the job or marriage prospects of the young.

Winter in Sokcho offers a fascinating glimpse into a little-known part of South Korea, far from the bright lights of Seoul, where the wounds of a war fought last century are still weeping.

  • Christine Kearney is a Canberra writer and reviewer.
This story Cool noir tension teetering on the edge of desire first appeared on The Canberra Times.