For those who don’t know, Sockcho is a town in South Korea, which is a tourist haven. There are lakes, beaches and coastal views. Despite the fact that it is a must see South Korean destination, it also is located near the North Korean border. Sokcho is also the setting for this wonderful novel.
The narrator of the book works at her mother’s guesthouse and occasionally lives there as she lives with her boyfriend in a nearby apartment. In a way she is a sort of misfit ; she is irritated by her mother’s insistence that she marries and her constant criticisms about her looks. Also she’s not too impressed by her boyfriend’s burgeoning model career. Since it’s winter the flow of tourists is slow and she’s bored, just performing tasks to fill up her time.
One day a French graphic novelist Kerrand, arrives in order to do some research for his latest comic and the narrator’s life changes subtly
The narrator is curious about the Kerrand’s western ways. His artwork, his disdain for spicy food. Yet the two strike up an odd relationship. As both are outsiders they get along with each other, but not in a romantic way. In fact there are times when Kerrand’s nonchalance for South Korea, and at one point North, puzzles her. She also discovers that Kerrand is drawing her and doesn’t really appreciate his depiction of her, so she finally persuades him to open his eyes and accept Korean culture which leads to an enigmatic conclusion.
On the surface Winter in Sokcho is like a quirky romance but it goes much deeper than that as the book tackles cultural identity, gender roles, traditional mentality vs contemporary values. The style is economic but the emotional resonance packs quite a punch. Definitely the less is more approach works well.
At one point in the book, the narrator and Kerrand are discussing beaches. Kerrand states that he prefers the ones in Normandy, despite the fact that there are still scars from WW2. The narrators shrugs her shoulders saying that world war 2 is long gone and to stop lingering over the past and reminds him that there are more pressing situations:
‘What I mean is you may have had your wars. I’m sure there are scars on your beaches but that’s all in the past. Our beaches are still waiting for the end of a war that’s been going on for so long people have stopped believing it’s real. They build hotels, put up neon signs , but it’s all fake, we’re on a knife-edge, it could all give way any moment. we’re living in limbo. In a winter that never ends.‘
I think the above quote summarises the book’s themes perfectly as it clearly shows the reader, the marked difference between the attitudes of our two protagonists. Which also could serve as a signpost for the narrator’s future actions with Kerrand.
It’s easy to get lost while picking apart Winter in Sokcho. Both the narrator and Kerrand are fascinating characters and have depth. There’s a lot of details to ponder over. It is a rich novel, not to mention that the translation from French is smooth and brings out the book’s nuances. It also gives a snapshot of a country which I’ve never been to. When a book manages to perk up my interest in a foreign culture AND is to thematically rich, then it’s a surefire winner for me.
Many thanks to Daunt Books for providing a requested copy of Winter in Sokcho in exchange for an honest review.