Title/Author: The Island of Sea Women
In a nutshell (Publisher):
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.
‘We are but living myths, and soon we will be gone.’
I was beyond excited to read another book by Lisa See. I’m a big fan!
Since today’s International Women’s Day, I thought it’d be fitting for me to post a review on a book focusing on the lives of these strong women – the haenyeo.
‘The Island of Sea Women’ is about the lives of haenyeo (sea women) in the Island of Jeju in Korea, who have the uncanny ability to dive into deep waters without any breathing apparatus to gather conch, sea urchins, octopus and abalone. The heart of the story are two unlikely friends whose fate brought them together. Young-Sook a baby (beginner) diver and Mi-Ja, daughter of a Japanese collaborator. Although as different as chalk and cheese, Mi-Ja who was orphaned at a young age, was ‘more like the sea – ever changing and occasionally tempestuous’ while Young-Sook was ‘practical and concerned always for her family,’ their friendship blossomed through their experiences shared as haenyeo under the tutelage of Young-Sook’s mother, and memories saved by Mi-Ja’s picture-rubbings/etchings.
Lisa See makes everything she writes come alive, and she makes you part of the story.
Get soaked into the lives of the strong, independent, wise and resilient haenyeo, while watching the camaraderie of the haenyeo at the bulteok, and listening to them bantering, talking about their families and men; basically just shooting the breeze, while cooking a meal at the same time sharing tips on how to improve their diving skills.
Then partake in their ancestral rites and rituals, witness shamans perform blessings on special occasions, so as to please their gods and goddesses, then learn about their aphorisms and wise sayings that get passed down from generation to generation which play a big part in their lives, constantly becoming their guidance in life. *
But their lives were interrupted when the Bukchon massacre, also known as “4:3” or April 3rd), the biggest, yet least known massacre happened, in which 10% of the islands population were brutally killed by their own government, and how the media lied about the severity of it was unbelievable! This massacre was kept a secret until the late 1980’s. It was also this incident that that Mi-Ja and Young-Sook’s friendship was truly tested. Mi-Ja’s action almost resulted in my kindle being thrown to the wall. Everything between them changed drastically ever since the massacre. In the end, it was her story that stayed with me.
*Here are some of my favorite wise sayings from the haenyeo:
The haenyeo often quote this: ‘The ocean is better than your natal mother. The sea is forever.’ More reason for us to love and guard Mother Nature.
And for hope and strength: ‘Fall down eight times, stand up nine’, and ‘When the string breaks while working, there is still the rope. When the oars wear out, there is still the tree.’
One of my favorite parts was when Joon-Lee interviewed the haenyeo for her sociology subject. The haenyeo were the breadwinners of their families and yet, as Joon-Lee herself had observed, ‘When husbands die, houses and fields pass to sons. Why is it that men own all the property?’ Why have women always been treated so unfairly? They even lamented, ‘It’s better to be born a cow than a woman’.
And lastly, ‘To understand everything is to forgive.’
The job of a haenyeo is risky, unpredictable and hazardous. But this won’t stop them from doing what gives them joy. It’s their oxygen.
A breath, a breath, a breath and then down…
I loved this book so much I even bought a copy for myself, and signed up to join the BN Book Club discussion this month! Keeping my fingers crossed I can make it this time!
Thank you Netgalley and Scribner for providing a free eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
*Quotes included here are from an advanced readers copy and are subject to change upon final publication.
Have you read this book? What did you think of it? If not, do you intend to? Please let me know your thoughts!
Till then, HAPPY READING! And THANK YOU FOR STOPPING BY!
and HAPPY INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY!