Paul Yoon’s 2009 story collection, Once the Shore, won numerous accolades, including being named Best Book of the Year by the L.A. Times and Publishers Weekly. Expectations were high for his debut novel—and with Snow Hunters, he has fulfilled them.
The plot of Snow Hunters is a spare one; it follows the journey of Yohan, a young North Korean and former prisoner of war who, after the Korean War’s conclusion, decides not to return to the North, but travels instead on a cargo ship to Brazil, where the U.N. has forged an agreement to allow former prisoners of war to emigrate. Yohan is apprenticed to an elderly Japanese tailor, Kiyoshi, who lives in a mostly Japanese community in an unnamed town on Brazil’s coast. The author skillfully weaves together scenes from Yohan’s youth and his years as a soldier and POW with those from the present, as his relationship with Kiyoshi strengthens.
Yohan’s mother died at his birth, and he was raised by his father, “a solitary man” whom he never knew well. He was 16 when his father died, and as he looks back, he realizes his parents were simply “a blank space in his life that he was unable to paint.” From Kiyoshi he learns not only tailoring skills, but also how to care for, and about, those who are now part of his life.
In the quietly resonant descriptions of his characters—Yohan, Kiyoshi and two local beggar children named Bia and Santi—Yoon paints an eloquent picture of the changes taking place in Yohan’s life as he gradually moves from the ravages of war to a contemplative and isolated existence occasionally sprinkled with moments of joy.
For readers who enjoyed A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee or Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Snow Hunters is an introspective and moving novel to savor.