Wintertime Sadness

Winter In Sokcho
By Elisa Shua Dusapin
160 pp. Open Letter Books. $15.

“Winter in Sokcho” is an even quicker read than its 156 pages would suggest. With the font size and the ease with which it reads, you can breeze through this in an hour or two, tops.

But is it worth an hour or two?

It is wonderfully atmospheric — the author does a great job summoning up the look and feel of Sokcho, a South Korean resort town, in the middle of winter. I’ve never been to Sokcho, or to South Korea for that matter, but I could feel the bitter winter air coming off the ocean in my fingertips while reading this.

Unfortunately, the story — what story there is — isn’t quite as appealing as the atmosphere.

Our French-Korean protagonist is a forlorn, rudderless young woman who works at a guesthouse in the town. Like many of us, she’s lost as to what she actually wants in life. She’s in a relationship with a male model (not named Derek Zoolander) — a man she doesn’t even seem to like, much less love.

Then, one day a stranger wanders in from the cold. A Frenchman! Would you look at that.

He’s a graphic novelist and just stays in his room all day drawing and eating instant noodles because he thinks Korean food is too spicy. Despite being French, and an artist of sorts, he doesn’t seem to have much of a palate.

The other characters have curious relationships with food too. Our protagonist’s mother is a chef, the only one in the town licensed to prepare Fugo, i.e. pufferfish, which can be toxic if not properly done. Our protagonist, meanwhile, has an eating disorder that sees her intentionally stuff herself to the point of throwing up — something her mother seems totally oblivious to.

“You look so lovely when you eat, my girl,” the mother says as her daughter is gorging herself and “gulping back” tears while doing it.

Umm, ok.

The mother also encourages her daughter to get plastic surgery, telling her “an operation might help you get a better job.” Later in the story, when our protagonist’s aunt comes to visit, she also encourages her niece to get an operation — even offering to pay for it.

This was all quite interesting to me, but the author makes the disappointing decision to focus the book on the developing relationship between our protagonist and the French graphic novelist, who isn’t so much odd as he is just reclusive and socially inept. He seems to be a good deal older than our protagonist and seems, to me anyway, to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Except that he can apparently draw semi-decently.

The scenes with these two fledging lovers, or whatever they’re meant to be, are awkward and the two constantly seem to be speaking past one another, each failing to grasp what the other one is saying. Whatever attraction our protagonist feels for this Frenchman was certainly a mystery to me, as their moments together are totally devoid of sparks — our protagonist’s angry masturbation session included.

There’s an underlying tension throughout the book that is never really given an outlet. The entire hour or so it took me to read this I was waiting for something to happen, but nothing ever does. When the book ends it simply … ends.

Sokcho deserves far better.

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