Genre: Historical Fiction | Diverse Rep: all-Korean cast
My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️.🌙
The Island of Sea Women takes us to the Korean island of Jeju. Starting in the 1930s, the story follows Young-Sook, one of the last of the haenyeo divers, through her childhood and into the years of her motherhood. She struggles to hold her family together as the world around and within Jeju changes.
As someone who didn’t even know Jeju existed before reading this, I really enjoyed learning about the forgotten culture of the Jeju haenyeo.
I was fascinated by the matri-focal culture of the island: women are the breadwinners, and the men take care of the children while the female diverse are at sea all day. I’m shocked that, as a feminist, I’d never heard about the haenyeo before. I especially loved the relationships between women: the divers have a specific hierarchy based on age and skill level, but they all help each other and work together to split their profits.
The work is incredibly dangerous, sometimes even deadly. These women withstand incredibly cold water temperatures and hold their breath for upwards of three minutes at a time. When they’re not diving, the women are also responsible for the dry fields, or their agricultural crops. Despite being a woman-focused society, there’s no degradation of men here beyond light joking. Young-Sook loves her husband deeply, and the women desire having sons since only sons can carry on ancestor worship.
Reading this book, I learned so much about the politics of the Korean War as well.
As an American, I’m ashamed of how little we talk about this era of history and its consequences. Before their defeat in WWII, Jeju was more or less a Japanese colony. After WWII, the Americans took over. Despite claiming they wanted Korean independence, America and Russia split Korea down the middle and essentially rigged the election system. I’m obviously over-simplifying here, but suffice to say that reading this book left me incredibly angry with my own country (which isn’t really a new feeling for me, tbh).
Beyond that, this is a book about friendship between two very different women.
Young-Sook is the daughter of her haenyeo collective’s chief, while her best friend Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, and therefore untrustworthy. Because Mi-ja is tainted by her parental background, she ends up being married off to another collaborator, an abusive man who isolates her from her former home. Young-Sook, meanwhile, marries within the neighborhood and has a happy life for a time. In the aftermath of WWII, just as they’re beginning to reconnect, Mi-ja betrays Young-Sook and the friends are driven apart.
I can’t imagine going through what Young-Sook does in this novel, and yet I had a hard time accepting the way she blames Mi-ja for everything that happens. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the latter part of the book immensely and appreciated how Young-Sook rebuilds herself in the face of such loss.
Unfortunately, I didn’t really feel all that connected to these characters.
Part of that is due to the fact that these women are mothers and even grandmothers, so I couldn’t really relate to them. Mostly, though, I felt disconnected because I didn’t really get to know Young-Sook. Aside from her status as a haenyeo and mother, I didn’t really know much about her personality. While this is perhaps the nature of a historical fiction book that’s mostly about a society at a point in time, it detracted from my enjoyment of the book.
Overall, do I recommend?
This book tells an important and forgotten story about our world’s past. Regardless of where you’re from, The Island of Sea Women sheds light on a forgotten part of history that we would all do well to learn. Any story that prioritizes women’s lives in the face of crisis is one that’s important, but in revealing a woman-focused culture, Lisa See draws attention to an important group of women and a culture that is now all but lost.
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