The Island of Sea Women
By: Lisa See
Published: March 5th, 2019
From the Cover:
Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends that come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility but also danger.
Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook’s differences are impossible to ignore. The Island of Sea Women is an epoch set over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War and its aftermath, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, and she will forever be marked by this association. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that after surviving hundreds of dives and developing the closest of bonds, forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.
This beautiful, thoughtful novel illuminates a world turned upside down, one where the women are in charge, engaging in dangerous physical work, and the men take care of the children.
I have always been a fan of Lisa See’s work, and fondly remember reading her books like Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy when I was growing up. It gave me insight into the lives of Chinese girls and young women, which were experiences that were unfamiliar to me. Like with those books, See helped illuminate another culture of women in The Island of Sea Women–one that is real, shocking, and inspirational.
On the island of Jeju live the women of the sea (Haenyeo). To those who are unfamiliar, haenyeo may seem more like mermaids than actual humans. They spend months at a time diving tens of meters deep into freezing cold sea water, without oxygen tanks or diving gear, to harvest sea life–abalone, crab, octopus–to sell at the market to support their families. That’s right, you heard me correctly. These women are the breadwinners of their families. While they are diving or at the market, their husbands can be found on the shore looking after the young children and fulfilling household duties. The haenyeo are revered and respected figures on Jeju. During a period of time around the world where women were considered less than men, these haenyeo were bolstering their society.
See paints the story of one haenyeo in particular–Young-sook–and follows her life from early childhood to elder years. She characterizes the adversity that Young-sook faces in growing up as the daughter of a haenyeo chief; experiencing death while performing her calling as a haenyeo; starting a family in times of uncertainty; losing cherished friendship; living through a changing political landscape and the tragedies of war; and overcoming her own prejudice and long-held grudges. This is all to say that the character development is superb. As a reader, you will become invested in the lives of these characters and amazed as See unravels their stories in front of you.
I had a difficult time getting through this book only because I found that it required a more active reading stance. There are parts that felt cumbersome like I was slogging through history; however, there were also parts that turned the pages themselves. It took some dedication and a little more time than I expected to get through the book, but I’m so glad I did. I think this is an incredible story and I walked away feeling like I truly learned something new about a culture that I never knew before. Props to Lisa See for another well-researched historical fiction novel.