Winter in Sokcho is the kind of book I very much enjoy: the chapters are small vignettes, the language is simultaneously spare and atmospheric. It’s also sometimes a bit uncomfortable, edging on grotesque, with a mysterious ending, but I think it all works. At the start of the book we meet the unnamed narrator, who’s 24 and works at a “run-down” guest house in Sokcho, a beach resort near the North Korean border. It’s winter, and there are hardly any guests, but then an unusual one arrives: an older French cartoon artist named Yan Kerrand. The narrator and Kerrand have a relationship that’s both magnetic and prickly: she studied French literature but only speaks English to him (we learn that she’s actually half French, though she never knew her father, who had “vanished without a trace” after having “seduced” her mom).

We see the narrator and her interactions with her boyfriend, Jun-oh, who is hoping to start a modeling career in Seoul, and her interactions with her mom, who works at the fish market, and her interactions with Kerrand, who invites her out to dinner and asks for her help at the supermarket. Kerrand wants to see the DMZ and the narrator goes with him; they go together to a temple, and to a nature reserve. He “doesn’t like spicy food” and never eats the dinners she prepares for the other guests; he says “Italians [a]re the only ones who really kn[o]w what to do with noodles,” then apologizes. He says he’d “been married” but doesn’t elaborate. The narrator watches him draw, and thinks about wanting him to see her, to draw her; Jun-oh, who suggests maybe she could get plastic surgery in Seoul, doesn’t really see her either. The narrator doesn’t eat enough, then eats too much; she freaks out about how much she’s eating, nearly cries at a meal with her mother, who tells her she’s too thin but also says “you’ll need to watch your figure.” (The narrator’s relationship with her mother seems claustrophobic: they’re both a bit removed from the rest of their community due to the narrator’s French father and his absence; the narrator grew up in a small apartment above the fish market with her mom, with just one bed. At one point Kerrand asks the narrator why she studied French and is surprised when she replies, “So I could speak a language my mother wouldn’t understand.”)

I love the descriptions of Sokcho in the off-season in the book, the empty beach and the restaurants empty of tourists. And I like the narrator seeing how Kerrand sees this place she lives and the surrounding area. The narrator describes it like this when she and Kerrand are on the guest-house roof: “Before us, a jumble of orange and blue corrugated roofs, the burnt-out ruin of the cinema. Further off, the port and fish market.” And then there’s this, from their drive to the DMZ: “Late afternoon light. Skeletal remains of villages on either side of the road. Cardboard boxes, plastic waste, blue metal sheets. No urban sprawl. Gangwon Province had been left to rot since the war.” Later, when Kerrand says beaches in Normandy have their own scars from the war, the narrator says this: “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.” And then this, about Kerrand’s art: “I recognized the hotels in Sokcho. The frontier was a scribble of barbed wire. The cave with the Buddhas. He’d lifted them from my world and planted them in his imaginary one, in shades of gray.”

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