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 Women introduces readers to the fierce and unforgettable female divers of Jeju Island and the dramatic history that shaped their lives.
The Island of Sea Women is a gorgeous, though-provoking, emotionally powerful read. We first meet Young-sook as an old woman on the beach in Jeju in 2008, thinking back on her life and feeling somewhat amused by the tourists who now flock to her island, viewing the elders of the haenyeo diving women as a living piece of history and a novelty. When she is approached by a visiting family who seem to know who she is, Young-sook is thrust back into her long-ago memories.
We’re reintroduced to Young-sook as a 15-year-old in 1938, about to embark on her first real dive with the haenyeo collective led by her mother. In Jeju, women support their families through their diving, while the men tend the children and the home. It’s an unusual matriarchy that suits the lives of the islanders. The women are strong physically and mentally, worrying about providing for their families, and gossiping about needing to care for their men and children. The diving offers sustenance and independence, but also presents very real dangers to the women, as Young-sook learns on her very first day.
Danger also comes from the Japanese colonial presence and the constant threat that hangs over the Korean population. The end of the war brings new sorts of danger, as the division of Korea results in danger from the military rulers and right-wing government.
Meanwhile, Young-sook and her best friend Mi-ja grow up together, close as sisters, until their adult lives as married women and mothers starts forcing them apart. Something terrible happens to cause a permanent rift, but we don’t discover the awful events until about midway through the book.
I really don’t want to disclose too many of the plot points, so I’ll leave my remarks pretty brief. This book was fascinating. I knew very little about Korean history before reading The Island of Sea Women, and I certainly had never heard about the haenyeo. The culture of the haenyeo is so amazing to learn about — even without the captivating characters and their stories, the story of the divers and their lives kept me completely engrossed.
Add to that a powerful story of friendship, family, love, obligation, and betrayal, as well as sharply drawn depictions of people who feel real, and you have a book that’s absolutely worth reading, and very, very memorable.
I highly recommend The Island of Sea Women, both for fans of historical fiction as well as anyone who enjoys poignant, emotionally rich stories about remarkable people. And if you’re not familiar with the haenyeo of Jeju, or want to learn more about them, check out this video for starters:
Title: The Island of Sea Women
Author: Lisa See
Publication date: March 5, 2019
Length: 374 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley