All The Books I Can Read

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Review: The Island Of Sea Women by Lisa See

on May 30, 2019

The Island Of Sea Women 
Lisa See
Scribner
2019, 365p
Copy courtesy Simon & Schuster AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

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.

This book was so fascinating and it served as a wonderful way to be introduced to the people of Jeju Island, which is off the southern tip of Korea (now South Korea). It begins with Mi-ja and Young-sook as young girls, first learning to be ‘baby divers’ in the traditional manner of their people. They’re basically free divers, scouring the ocean for its bounty – mostly things like sea urchin, abalone, crabs, octopus etc. Each thing has a season and they’re very respectful of the right time to harvest things. Originally the divers were men but many wars and the disappearance of male populations in skirmishes over the years meant the women had to take on the role and now fill it exclusively. The husbands of the divers mind the children on the shore, congregating with other men in groups, chatting the days away whilst they watch over their offspring. The women divers undergo a rigorous training process, always being teamed with a buddy diver and are categorised according to their experience and restricted in their diving depending on what their category is. Baby divers harvest in shallower reefs and ledges where as the mature divers can descend up to 20m. It was honestly fascinating stuff and I really enjoyed getting to know the background history and understanding the way the women worked and what a day consisted of. Quite often, when women reached the age of about 17-19, they would go to Vladivostok for up to 9 months at a time and dive there, saving their money earned to come home and provide in bulk for their families. A family of girls meant a family of providers and the women all knew this. The women would often discover they were pregnant whilst away in Vladivostok and primitive communication meant their babies could be born on their sojourn, with their husbands completely unaware until they would return with offspring. The women would dive when pregnant, right up until the birth and then go back to diving, their babies rocking gently in boats nearby.

Mi-ja and Young-sook come from quite different backgrounds – Mi-ja is an orphan of Koreans who were known as ‘collaborators’ with the Japanese whereas Young-sook is from a large family living on Jeju Island where her mother is the head diver who looks after all the girls. The two girls develop the firmest of friendships – they are like sisters after Young-sook’s mother takes Mi-ja under her wing to learn to be part of the divers. The two girls are inseparable, travelling and diving together until the very beautiful Mi-ja catches the eye of a wealthy man. From there the two women struggle as their lives diverge, although at first they both work hard at maintaining the friendship. But as the years go by and WWII and then the Korean War tear Jeju Island apart, betrayals and judgements drive a wedge between them that does not heal. Some of the things that happen in this book are quite brutal – this time in Korea’s history is bloody, especially after World War II. Both Mi-ja and Young-sook, now grown women with husbands and children, suffer. The ways in which they suffer are different. What they each see is not always a true indication of what things are and I think Young-sook in particular, feels betrayed because she only sees Mi-ja’s actions without knowing the reasoning behind them. The friendship that meant everything to them disintegrates amid the most heartbreaking of circumstances in times when they would probably have needed each other the most. They still dominate each other’s thoughts though, even many years later.

I loved this – I was hooked from the very beginning, from Mi-ja and Young-sook as young girls learning their craft, following in Young-sook’s mother’s footsteps and participating in the strong matriarchal traditions of the Jeju. The haenyo (sea-women) are still prevalent on the island today, although it’s an ageing profession these days. The average age of a haenyo is 65 years old and some are diving into their 80s, which is absolutely incredible. When this book begins, they have no wetsuits, instead wearing white cotton. They use no breathing apparatus, even now. But with many younger women are leaving the island for education and employment elsewhere, it’s unknown how the profession will prosper in the future. I really enjoyed learning and reading about it and following the lives of Mi-ja and Young-sook. This was a brilliant story spanning their lifetime and everything that was happening in this part of Korea during it.

9/10

Book #80 of 2019


7 responses to “Review: The Island Of Sea Women by Lisa See

  1. This sounds wonderful and I have a copy too! So I can get straight to it.

  2. Sounds like an interesting book!

  3. Marg says:

    This does sound interesting!

  4. Wonderful review, I was hooked from the moment I saw the photo on the cover of the book and knew it was going to potentially be great reading the blurb and even the title, what a promise!

    This was so much more than a novel, a discovery of this matrifocal lineage, their way of life and shamanistic beliefs, I had no idea there was this kind of ritual belief system in a part of Korea, all so fascinating and amazing that it was allowed to continued to exist until almost the present day. I love that Lisa See researched it all so well and was able to bring a story and this way of life into our awareness.

  5. […] The Island Of Sea Women by Lisa See. This was such an amazing story about a matriarchal society living on Jeju, an island off the coast of South Korea. The women in the society are basically free divers, training from a young age to hold their breath and dive to deeper and deeper depths to harvest the sea while the men stay home and look after the children. It was amazing – moving through WWII and Japanese occupation. My review. […]

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