I wanted to read The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See as soon as I heard about it. Set on the island of Jeju, off the coast of South Korea, it’s a historical fiction novel about two women Young-sook and Mi-ja. It follows their friendship through a time of turmoil encompassing Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 40s, World War II, the Korean War and its aftermath to 2008.
Young-sook and Mi-ja are both haenyeo, free divers who are part of a collective of female divers who harvest the seas off Jeju. While the men stay at home and take care of the children, the women go to sea and dive, catching octopus, abalone and sea urchins to sell. They dive without oxygen. In the old days, they wore light clothing and dove all year round in freezing waters – even when pregnant.
Everything about this book is fascinating. I lived in South Korea for a few years but never visited Jeju – a place that’s now popular with Korean honeymooners. I knew that Korea had a heartbreaking past, but through this book I learned of all the hardship the people of Jeju endured before, during and after the war years. All these events are told through the friendship of Young-sook and Mi-ja who both start together as ‘baby’ divers at fifteen and experience war, loss, marriage and the birth of children together until one day a tragic event rips their friendship apart.
Lisa See has done an amazingly thorough job researching this novel. There is so much detail. But it doesn’t weigh down the narrative, instead it enriches it. In the acknowledgments section at the back of the book you can see the extraordinary amount of research Lisa did to make this book true to the experiences of the haenyeo and the people of Jeju. This wasn’t an easy story to read. It was heart-wrenching and tragic like the history of the island during these years. The characters suffered so much, endured so much. But they didn’t have any other choice and were resigned to hardship. They were truly resilient. As one of the characters says at one point:
“We suffer and suffer and suffer, but we also keep getting up. We keep living.”
The Island of Sea Women is beautifully written, harrowing and powerful. The story of Young-sook and Mi-ja’s friendship lies at the heart of this story. Like many close female friendships, it’s not without its problems and misunderstandings. There are tragic events in this book that are difficult to read about but it’s so important that they are represented after decades of Jeju people being banned from talking about them. This was a truly amazing book!
Verdict: I highly recommend The Island of Sea Women if you’re a fan of historical fiction. I found it so fascinating and heartbreaking. I don’t usually give starred reviews on this blog, but this book definitely gets 5 stars from me.