Monday, September 9, 2019

The Island of Sea Women - Lisa See

Summary: 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. A classic Lisa See story—one of women’s friendships and the larger forces that shape them—The Island of Sea Womenintroduces readers to the fierce and unforgettable female divers of Jeju Island and the dramatic history that shaped their lives. (Summary and pic from

My Review: I have a distinct memory of reading a story about Japanese pearl divers when I was in grade school. I was so fascinated by it—the idea that people would go under the ocean for extended periods of time and swim to the seabed just stunned me. (This may be because I was from a firmly land-locked state, and had very little experience with the ocean). I have thought about that story off and on for a long time, but it wasn’t until I saw this book that I was aware of how it might be real. The women in this story aren’t pearl divers, and they’re Korean, not Japanese, but it was absolutely fascinating. This was one of those books that led me down a rabbit hole of research—reading extra material online, saving books about it on my to-read list, and watching lots of YouTube videos on these women, whose lifestyle is on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity 2016 for UNESCO.

There were many things I liked about this book. The first one is that revealed a new and interesting culture that I’d been unfamiliar with. This happened to me in my last review as well! What a delight! I love finding new things. I feel like I have a connection to Korea because I had two Korean roommates in college and got to be quite close to them over the two years we lived together. The women in the book were from Jeju Island, which was different than my roommates, but I was somewhat familiar with the foods discussed in this book, as well as some of the lifestyle and culture. Jeju Island is different than anywhere else, and I learned that it is one of the biggest tourist spots in all of Korea. I looked up tons of pics, of course, and it was beautiful. The landscape was fascinating. But what I found really interesting is that this is a culture of women—the women are the main providers, and it has allowed them to create a better life for them and their families. The men stay at home and take care of the children, and the women go out into the sea and make the money. Even when both the man and woman are working, the woman is able to provide things for her children that they would have not had before i.e. a college education, additional schooling, etc. I also appreciated the book didn’t sugar-coat or romanticize the culture. These women did hard, backbreaking work that would lead to some of them losing their hearing over a lifetime due to the water pressure. And many women lost their lives due to the dangers of the sea. There were a myriad of health problems that can come with diving without proper equipment—and even with it—and these women paid the price. However, I was constantly impressed by their tenacity and determination to do what they needed to do. I found their grit to be inspiring. Seriously. These women are tough.

Another thing I appreciated about this book is that it brought to light a part of history that I was not aware of, and this book touched on a lot of different parts of Korea’s history, and much of it was really painful and hard to read about. However, I think it’s important to read about hard things to learn to be more empathetic and to understand different cultures and people and times. Also, we need to be aware of atrocities throughout history “lest we forget,” right?

One of the things that makes Lisa See the kind of author she is is that she is able create layers in a story. This story was a fascinating one about Jeju women divers, but it is also a story of the relationships between men and women, the relationships between women and their children and their daughters, and the relationships between friends and those who are closest to us. Ultimately it is a really sad story, and I wouldn’t recommend it for light-hearted and fun reading. However, I think it’s a book that’s important and fascinating and I am certainly glad that I read it. It was so interesting and thought-provoking. I think it would make an excellent book club book, although it would not be for the faint of heart.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book has difficult content. There are atrocities of war and some language and some really sad situations.  

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