Author: Paul Yoon
Genre: Fiction, Foreign
My Rating: 3 out of 5
Snow Hunters tells the story of Yohan, a young North Korean man captured by the Americans in the Korean War. At the “end” of the Korean War, he is given the chance to be repatriated to North Korea, but he chooses to defect instead. Yohan finds himself in Brazil as the result of a refugee placement program, trying to grapple with his past and find his way in a completely new world.
One of the major themes in the novel hinges on the importance of connections. Whether Yohan was trying to make new connections or break ties to his past, the contrast between him and his surroundings constantly emphasizes the importance of connection. Yohan has found himself in a foreign place with completely foreign ideals, languages, and climate. In order to move on and function in daily life, he must try and connect with the world around him.
As Yohan works to make his connections in the present, exploring the neighborhood and learning Portuguese among other things, he is forced by circumstance to work through his haunting past. The ravages of war are not so easily forgotten. As he meets new people and forges new friendships, he works through the memories of lost friends and family and the brokenness he feels with the lost of those ties. At one point, Yohan notes that “he did not understand how a life could just vanish”. Even after all of his experience with loss and death in the war, he must grapple with how connections can be easily lost in the present.
The imagery throughout the novel underscores the themes of connection. Late in the novel, Yohan notes that, at one point, he shared a rope clothesline with a woman across the street. They shared this rooftop setup until their clothes were stolen one day. This physical connection between people symbolizes his constant desire to feel connected. He comments that he enjoyed imagining that the line was still there sometimes. The imagery left me with a sadness, imagining the lines of connection being quite literally cut off for this man who had already been forcefully disconnected from so much.
Snow Hunters is also a story of acclimation and adjustment to constantly contrasting emotions, feelings, and environments. The need to adjust is conveyed brilliantly by appealing to the reader’s sense. Yohan must frequently adjust to the differences between light and dark. The village he lives in is subject to frequent power outages that leave him in sudden darkness, trying to see at night by the stars and flashlights. The climate is also an adjustment. Brazil is hotter than Yohan had ever experienced, being from the northern portion of North Korea. However, Yohan eventually adapts to the heat, just in time for the regions first cold spell. After finally acclimating, Yohan is left unaccustomed to the cold and without even so much as a sweater.
As Yohan connects and adjusts throughout the course of the novel, understanding builds within him. The more Yohan comprehends, the more the reader gains insight into his present life and the people around him. As a reader, I had the sensation of adjusting to these new experiences and relationships alongside Yohan, including his time spent with an orphan boy and girl and the kindly Japanese tailor who took him in when he first arrived in Brazil.
The way that Yohan’s experiences with sewing were crafted into the framework of the novel was quite well done. Yohan has exposure to working with fabrics during his time as a prisoner of war, repairing garments for the soldiers holding him captive. In Brazil, Yohan is taken in by a tailor and becomes his apprentice. There are clear metaphors for creating something from nothing with fabric, adjusting fabrics for a new fit or a new purpose, and stitching together fabric as part of the creation process in comparison to what it must be like to work through your past and rebuild your life.
Switching between his present day experiences and flashbacks to his life in Korea, the novel’s rhythm underscores the sense that Yohan is piecing himself back together and pulling pieces of himself apart. After one important event requiring Yohan to adjust once more, we see him sitting alone: “Yohan worked, undoing the seams of the fabric.” This encapsulates the idea that Yohan must take things apart to put himself back together.
The novel is a character study and should be read for the imagery, sensory experiences, and character evolution rather than for actual plot development. Stylistically, the novel is brimming with poetic prose that paints vivid imagery designed to appeal to the reader’s senses. We discover Brazil and what it is to connect and adjust to a new world right alongside Yohan. We see through his curious eyes, new to these sights and sounds, with no narrative omniscience. The novel does jump around a bit too much for my liking and became a bit overly descriptive in some passages. But considering that this novel was supposedly edited down to about 190 pages from 500+ pages of manuscript, it is remarkable.
This novel causes readers to consider what it means to hold ourselves together or to begin anew after tragic experiences. We’re all fighting against memories, looking to stitch ourselves back together, in order to create connections and feel like we belong in the part of the world we live in