The Island of Sea Women

Rating: 
Author: Lisa See
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub date: Mar. 5, 2019 (read Jan. 2019)

I read The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane back in 2017 and really liked it. I’ve been meaning to read some more of Lisa See’s work ever since, but the content is quite heavy, so I keep putting it off. So when I received an early copy of The Island of Sea Women from Simon and Schuster Canada, I was excited to finally read another one of Lisa’s books!

I clearly need to prioritize reading some of her earlier works because I liked this just as much as I like the Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, maybe more!! The Island of Sea Women is about a matrifocal community of female divers on Jeju Island. Jeju Island is a large volcanic island located to the south of South Korea. It was under the control of the Japanese until the end of WWII, when it was taken over by the Americans.

What’s interesting about the island and many of its communities, is that they are mostly focused on women. Many of the traditional gender structures still exist in that men own property, the ownership is passed down through the male line, and giving birth to boys is valued because only boys can attend school and perform ancestor worship. However, the women are viewed as the providers and decision makers and the men stay home and raise the children. This is because it is the women on the island who become Haenyeo. Haenyeo are a collective of divers who are widely respected. They row offshore every day to dive in the frigid ocean for sea-life to feed their family and to sell to wealthy Japanese colonizers. The most prized catch is the abalone, but they also dive for sea urchins, octopus, squid, and other species.

See focuses her story on Young-sook. Young-sook is the daughter of a Haenyeo chief, so she learns to dive from an early age and develops a very close friendship with another girl in the community, Mi-ja. The two girls are inseparable and both join the Haenyeo collective when they come of age and travel together as young women to do leave-home diving work. However, as they grow older, their friendship is challenged and circumstances arise to drive a wedge between the two women. This book tells Young-sook’s life story, her friendship with Mi-ja, and the sad history of Jeju Island.

I was really interested in the Haenyeo culture and how they work together as a collective. I thought it was fascinating the ways that traditional gender roles were sometimes switched in this culture, but remained similar in other ways. I find diving to be fascinating (and terrifying) and I really liked learning about the Haenyeo traditions, how they would organize and dive together, and how resilient these women are. But what I really loved about this book was the way it also takes us through South Korea’s history.

I read Min Jin Lee’s book, Pachinko, last year and really liked it. It’s about a Korean family that immigrates to Japan and the challenges they faced there as immigrants. It was a good introduction the the history between Korea and Japan. This book also focuses on that conflict, but from a different angle and perspective; between the two books I learned a lot about Korea and Japan. The history covered in this book is upsetting to be sure, but it is a very good look at how Western countries can tear other countries apart in their own political disputes. Korea was split at the end of WWII, to be governed by the Soviet Union in the North and America in the South. Russia obviously promoted communism and America, democracy.

As everyone knows, American’s were extremely threatened by the rise of communism. I’m still not super familiar with Korea’s history, but from this book, it seems that there was support for communism on Jeju Island, which created conflict between the island and the rest of the Korean mainland. Rebel groups popped up among the mountain tribes on Jeju Island and fighting ensued between rebel groups and the authorities. Korea had a culture of guilt by association, whereby if a member of your family committed a crime, you were considered tainted by association. This resulted in consequential killings in which families and entire communities might be punished for the actions of an individual. The Jeju uprising officially began on April 3, 1948, and resulted in the destruction of many villages and left many people homeless.

I’ll admit, I know very little about Korea’s history, but I loved learning about it from Young-sook’s point of view. The people of Jeju had always had a tumultuous relationship with the Japanese and she observed that little changed within their communities with the end of WWII and that their power mostly just changed hands between the Japanese and the Americans. Young-sook observes that they have always been oppressed, but that Korean’s always looked after one another. However, because of differing ideologies between a democratic and communist state, she was upset to see Korean’s start to turn on one another.

From this setting, we also see how the Haenyeo were forced to change and adapt over the years and the impact the conflict had on their diving activities. The Haenyeo are still very popular, but more as a tourist attraction. The birth of daughters was also celebrated on Jeju as it ensured the financial stability of the family. However, very few girls are training to become Haenyeo these days and the collective has greatly aged, with few young women to take their places. I loved how See balances the challenges and changes to the collective along with the changing and increasingly challenging political climate on the island. It also linked in with Young-sook’s changing relationship with Mi-ja. While the novel takes us through 70 years of Korean history, at it’s core, it is a story about friendship and forgiveness.

As much as I loved this book, I do have one criticism, which is what brought my rating down from 5 stars to 4 stars. The story is told in 5 parts and progresses pretty naturally through time. However, each part starts with a flash forward to 2008. While I see some value in the 2008 timeline, I think it would have worked better as a short epilogue focused on remembering the April 3 incident and finding peace. I did not like the inclusion of Clara in the story. While Young-sook struggles with her feelings and forgiveness throughout the second half of the novel, I felt this last storyline came too late in the story and timeline. Personally, I thought the ending felt forced and manipulative. I felt like the author was trying to manipulate me into this cathartic moment at the end, but the catharsis was too late in coming and not believable to me.

Despite the ending, I still loved this book. Though the story focuses on Young-sook, I loved the exploration of Mi-ja’s story as well. The history and decisions of some of the characters were upsetting, culminating at the April 3 incident. However, I felt that they demonstrated how things can change in an instant and how in life and death situations, what might have been a well-meaning action or decision can be interpreted in the aftermath. It’s a somber realization, but it was the defining moment of Young-sook and Mi-ja’s relationship. I would definitely recommend this book.

The Island of Sea Women will be available for purchase in stores on Mar. 5th, 2019. Thanks to Scribner and Simon and Schuster Canada for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

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