The sensitive Tong-ho, nicknamed "Poet", dreams about his girlfriend and refuses to drink or sleep with prostitutes — until he starts to come apart under the stress. At the other extreme, the hard-boiled Hyon-t'ae displays extreme callousness towards women, but still finds himself haunted by his actions during the war. Only the pragmatic and resourceful Yon-gu — who has managed to survive capture by the Chinese and escape — finds his footing in peacetime. And then there's Tong-ho's girlfriend Sugi, who seeks out his friends to try to understand what happened to him, and sergeant Sonu, whose Christianity fails to keep him from madness.
As this plot summary should make clear, Trees on a Slope is bleak, though never so unremittingly as to make reading hard. The focus is psychological, but the story is simple and straightforward, with an eventful and fast-paced narrative. It also offers a fascinating glimpse of post-war Korean life. This translation manages without footnotes or other explanatory apparatus, but a brief afterword describes Hwang Sun-won's significance as one of the few Korean novelists to write about the war.