It is 1954 and the story traces the extraordinary journey of Yohan, who defects from his country at the end of the Korean War, leaving his friends and family behind to seek a new life on the coast of Brazil. Throughout his years there, four people slip in and out of his life: Kiyoshi, the Japanese tailor for whom he works; Peixe, the groundskeeper at the town church; and two vagrant children named Santi and Bia. Yohan longs to connect with these people, but to do so he must let go of his traumatic past.
In One Line
At the end of the Korean War, Yohan is freed from a POW camp and leaves his native country behind for Brazil. Once there, he becomes a tailor’s apprentice and meets four people who help him make sense of his past.
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“Snow Hunters” opens at the end of the Korean War as a refugee, Yohan, makes his way by cargo ship to Brazil to start a new life. One of the many mysteries of the book is why, after being released from two years in a prison camp, Yohan chooses not to repatriate to North Korea but instead accepts a United Nations offer to emigrate. The decision is a telling one; through the course of the story, we find that Yohan has no ties left to return to; he is going to a country where his only connection is a letter of employment with a Japanese tailor, Kiyoshi, who will become the first friend of his new life. The novel alternates between Yohan’s time in Brazil and his time in the prison camp with his blinded childhood friend, Peng. War is presented here in small, exquisite slivers: “A girl sitting in an empty window frame in a destroyed town they were passing through. How she wiped the dirt off a pear wedge, showing the dark spaces where her teeth had been.” Dislocation is not only a physical but an existential condition in Yoon’s world — as inescapable for Yohan in Brazil as it was for the residents of the fictional South Korean island in the author’s story collection.
Despite the bleak circumstances, the pleasures of “Snow Hunters” are many, and they begin with Yoon’s prose, at once lyrical and precise, as in this description of Yohan standing in front of his new home in the early morning: “The rain continued to fall. It fell on the rooftops on the slopes of the hill and in the narrow streets and the alleyways and on the windows of the tailor’s shop, blurring the image of his body. The morning was gray and the color of rust. All the sounds of the waking city seemed to rise toward the sky, dissipating as the rain fell.”
Although the characters are almost uniformly scarred by life and exist in restrained circumstances, they all find joy either in the natural world or in acts of kindness to others. The strongest parts of the book delineate the tenuous bonds of friendship between characters, especially between adults and children. Yohan’s relationship with a couple of vagrant children is among the most affecting in the novel, growing and changing over the course of a decade — but acts of kindness abound. A stranger gives Yohan a blue umbrella on his first rainy morning. The unforthcoming Kiyoshi, upon meeting his new employee, notes the ill-fitting donated suit he has arrived in, and Yohan wakes to find the jacket altered to fit him better (just as his new Brazilian life is fated to do).
Exerpt from The New York Times Book Review, by
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“Of the many words that could describe Snow Hunters—poetic, observant, poignant, compassionate, refined, elegiac, limpid—I’ll choose ‘dreamlike’.” (Asian Review of Books)
“Writing about war and its ramifications can be tricky, but Yoon’s writing is graceful, understated, at times elegiac, but graphic in the right places.” (St Louis Post-Dispatch)
“Paul Yoon’s slender novel Snow Hunters is exquisitely written—the kind of book that makes you think, this is the work of a writer’s writer.” (Roxanne Gay The Nation)
“Spotlight: There are a lot of big books coming out this fall. Enormous books. So here at the end of summer, savor this slim gift.” (The Tennessean)
“A quiet exploration of love and starting over, Yoon’s novel is a brilliant story of a young man who leaves his native Korea for Brazil in the aftermath of the Korean War.” (The San Francisco Chronicle)
“Yoon’s delicate prose creates a haunting perspective.” (Booklist)
“Ordinary moments take on a graceful quality that might have gone unnoticed in less skilled hands…A minimalist, well-crafted story.” (Kirkus)