WINTER IN SOKCHO by Élisa Shua Dusapin (Translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

Winter in Sokcho
By Élisa Shua Dusapin
(Translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins)
Open Letter Books — April 2021
ISBN: 9781948830416
— Paperback — 160 pp.


Sokcho: A bustling warm-weather tourist destination of South Korean lakes and beaches. In the winter, Sokcho lies dormant, almost as quiet and isolated as the demilitarized zone that lies mere minutes away, separating life there from North Korea beyond. A young woman in her mid-twenties works at a guest house as a receptionist, having returned home to the town after her studies in Seoul. Her Korean mother works in a town fish market, and her French father is long gone. Though she has a boyfriend, she remains uncertain of his place in her life. Even more, she hasn’t quite figure out who she is, let alone who she should be.

The arrival of a curious guest disrupts the slow and detached days of the unnamed protagonist’s stagnant contemplation as she works reception. The guest is a middle-aged Frenchman named Yan Kerrand, a writer and illustrator of graphic novels who has sought out the cold, barren Sokcho and its environs for inspiration in finishing the final volume of his series. He feels lost of how his character’s story should proceed, and looks to the landscape and conversation for revelation.

The protagonist begins by speaking with him in hesitant English, uncertain to reveal that she is half French, and has learned the language at school, but transfixed by the window that Kerrand might supply to the unknown half of her cultural heritage. Kerrand asks her to serve as a guide of the town for him, explaining his desire to see the ‘real’ Korea, not the tourist trappings.

What follows is a growing friendship and non-sexual intimacy between the two, a discovery between two souls adrift, individuals riddled by doubts who are searching for connections and being seen. Both by others, and by themselves. Coupled to this humanity of characters is the exploration of the Korean landscape at that harsh, scar-like DMZ divide between South and North: two nations with shared heritages, but who have become separated too long to know one another. And as a result, also have lost some conception or understanding of themselves.

Winter in Sokcho is as sparse and desolate of a novel as its setting, but it is not nearly as cold. Dusapin’s writing (and Higgins’ translation) are brimming underneath the glacial, calm plot with powerful emotion, a building, suspenseful atmosphere that something will apocalyptically surge from these characters in a clarity of self-comprehension. Self appreciation is another theme. Both characters, each in their own way, suffer from deficits in self-appreciation and self-confidence. For Kerrand this most overtly exists in his struggles to find appropriate closure to his art, and acceptance that he will reach that based on past successes. For the protagonist it manifests in self-perceived body dysmorphia, her persistent feelings of repulsion to aspects of her physical form, even when realizing unwarranted cause for feeling so.

Though the character’s each come to personal revelations, not all is resolved, no more than the political divide between North and South of the Korean core heritage has resolved back into wholeness.

The strengths of Winter in Sokcho sit in the rich beauty of its language and atmosphere. Both the narrative passages and the dialogue resonate deeply and can be savored. Frequently, that richness tickles multiple senses with descriptions of food. I’ve struggled to come to some sort of conclusion or interpretation of why food figures so predominantly in the novel. How does that relate to the themes? I don’t have a good answer for myself, yet. But, at least on the level of structure the additions work beautifully to render detailed emotional, sense-inducing atmosphere to the novel.

Winter in Sokcho won the Swiss Prix Robert Walser, as well as the French Prix Régine-Deforges. Its translation into English by Higgins recently won the National Book Award for Translated Literature. This is not a novel for readers who demand exciting, intricately designed plots or explosive finales. However, if you enjoy literature of rich atmosphere and language, literature that is simple to read, but complex and evocative when digesting, then this novel is a book you should search out. Support publishers like Open Letter Books for helping bring amazing texts like this to the English-speaking world.


A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra
Publisher: Hogarth Books
ASIN: B00A5MS0Z0
402 pages, ebook
Published 1st January 2013
Sources: Blogging for Books & Edelweiss

 Somehow, this notably well-reviewed novel slipped under my radar even past its release. Only upon perusing the Blogging for Books offerings did I discover it, and I am glad I chose to give it a try. If you haven’t heard about A Constellation of Vital Phenomena yet, or if it has been sitting on your to-read or consideration list, I’d recommend getting a copy ASAP. Then clear some nights for engrossed reading.
For those not familiar with the plot of Anthony Marra’s award-winning novel, it is set in the war-ravaged region of Chechnya and traces the intersecting experiences of a small cast of characters as they struggle for life, a combination of survival and purpose.
When Russian soldiers come for her father, eight-year-old Havaa flees into the surrounding Chechen woods, where her father’s friend Akhmed rescues her and takes her to hide at the nearly deserted hospital. There, the sole doctor left in this war-torn wasteland is Sonja, a European-trained physician who has returned through a sense of responsibility both to home and to a sister that has gone missing. Reluctantly, Sonja agrees to help care for Havaa, and – in testament to dire conditions – accepts the inept medical help of Akhmed, who has failed out of medical school and yearns more for artistic expressions.
Thrown together in awful circumstances, these characters share a stubborn commitment to hope for individuals and a future that fights against the despair surrounding them. With recollections of the past years of the Chechen conflict, and the constant threat that present friends may turn on them for personal gain with the Russians, these characters discover their lives intertwined, past, present and future.
The novel’s title comes from a definition for life given by a medical text/dictionary in the novel. The term is remarkably difficult to biologically define in one sentence. Typically, biologists will talk of characteristics of life, rather than settling on a strict definition. But the one here given title is particularly resonant in capturing the essential sum of those characteristics of life. They form an interlocking constellation of phenomena, individual traits that put together form a picture unique and new with a story. Similarly like stars each of the characters in Marra’s novel interact together to form a constellation in this historical space of humanity.
Metaphorically one could speak of a certain balance between the stars in forming a constellation. Similarly, Marra’s novel succeeds so well because of the careful balance he is able to strike in its construction. The shifts in time from chapter to chapter (or even within chapters) is managed without any sense of rupture or confusion. Each of the characters is an interesting balance of strengths and weaknesses and even the villains are shown with traits of sympathy and compassion.
(The novel does appropriately stay focused on the Chechens. The Russians in the novels are an outside force of the plot and setting more so than characters, and the villains, heroes, or mixtures in the story are each Chechen here.)
The emotional weight of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena could quickly take it into a story that feels utterly bleak. Marra nicely finds balance here as well, with the character’s vital hopes and perseverance working to counter the negative, and the young Havaa in particular offers a bright ray of humor and compassion that symbolizes a certain hope for the lives of a future generation.
The events of the novel’s ‘present-day’ plot consist of a mere five days, but A Constellation of Vital Phenomena takes these points to form a picture over decades of conflict, personal and spiritual. The novel will pass similarly fast while reading, but its power and humanity will echo with the reader far longer.
Five Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the Crown Publishing Group via their Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review.

The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher

The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher
Publisher: Open Road Media
AISN: B00DZEJRCA
502 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
(Original Publ: 1975)
Source: NetGalley

This was an introduction to Calisher’s writings for me, and while I appreciated her skills, I didn’t particularly enjoy reading most of these stories, particularly not in one continuous span, making it somewhat difficult to review. I could envision this being a book I’d like having a copy on hand to read from in small doses, or when wanting to study some masterful (albeit convoluted) portrayal of character.

Calisher’s stories are dense, and as it says in one of the introductions to this collection, you have to enjoy thinking in order to appreciate this. It can’t simply be browses, or read lightly. The stories almost all feature family and social dynamics in well-to-do New York city families, told in wandering, elliptical and often dispassionately reminiscing voice. This style creates a certain disconnect between the inherent, detailed humanity of her characters and the obtuse, cold fashion those emotions are related. Not unlike reading an academic discourse on the history of some tragedy, the style makes things distant, whereas the events and people described beg for close proximity.

Verbose and full of flowery latinate vocabulary, with foreign phrases of the upper class flung about to convey sentiments and mots justes not easily translated into English, Callisher even comes across as pretentious, populated with pretentious characters. Yet, that is the kind of world she is writing about, and using the styles of that world to communicate some basic emotions and conditions.

Despite all the challenges of her style, Callisher still manages to write with an easily noticeable beauty and rhythm. Her paragraphs have a cadence, some extending long, but then followed by one short. Her phrasing and choice of specific words gives the Academic, dispassionate text a certain poetry that makes it a little more empathetic and relatable, most particularly in her use of alliteration.

The opening story to this collection was easily my favorite, it contained a ‘plot’ and character explorations beyond the mundane family interactions and social atmospheres of upper crust NYC. Speckled throughout were others that I found fantastic, but most began to feel tedious. If you have a fond regard for literary prowess or the subject of Callisher’s writings (NYC) then this is just for you. If you simply enjoy a wide range of short stories and artistic writing then this may be something good to dip into on occasion without trying to barrel through.

Three  Stars out of Five