Historical Fiction

The Island of Sea Women

Wow, was it hard to get my hands on this book! This was the book chosen as the April read for my remote (Google Hangout) book club. And even though we’ve read some new releases in the past, this is the first time I was afraid I wouldn’t actually get the book in time (and, in all fairness, I didn’t actually – I had to request that we move book club back a week…and I still almost didn’t make it). I was on the waitlist for the physical book, ebook and audiobook at both library systems where I have cards (one benefit of living in county with so much separate-ness between the main town and other areas is multiple library systems). Anyways, it wasn’t looking like anything was going to come through before the end of April. Literally, not a single version. And then, on a whim, I stopped by the library closest to home on my way back from the gym a week ago (I mean, I can’t say I don’t do this often, but still…it wasn’t on the plan for the day) and guess what book was sitting on the top of the “lucky day” shelf??? Spoiler alert: it was this one! Lucky day indeed! And thank goodness, because otherwise I would have had to request another week delay for book club and I would have felt really bad about that…

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

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This book takes place on the Korean island of Jeju, taking us from the late 1930s and carrying us along on a journey through generations and to, more or less, the present day. Mi-ja and Young-sook, two young girls from completely different backgrounds meet and become friends. Together they become haenyeo, female divers who spend their days in the sea, collecting various shellfish and sea life to sell, supporting their families financially in (what is now) one of the most well-known matriarchal societies in the world. Over the years, they experience many parts of history together, from Japanese colonialism to WWII to the Korean War and on into the modern day’s technology. And although both suffer, and are victims, in their own terrible ways, the larger forces around them threaten their relationship and lead to a breaking point from which they may not be able to come back.

“Sometimes you must experience heartache to have a treasured result.”

This was a phenomenally written and paced sweeping historical fiction. By following Mi-ja and Young-sook through the years together and apart, the author does a fantastic job bringing to life not only the island of Jeju and its culture (both in general and specific to the haenyeo way of life), but also the events and movements of the wider world that irrevocably affect and change the life of the island’s inhabitants. For me, this book was incredibly educational. To start, I knew little to nothing about haenyeo before reading this. And I was fascinated by the sociological aspects of their lives that See went into such gorgeous detail about. Reading about their hierarchies, training methods, ecological knowledge of and respect for the sea, traditional religious practices (for birth, mourning, general prayers, etc.), interpersonal lives, the non-traditional (and simultaneously quite traditional) roles and outlook of men and women in the society…it all had me completely engrossed. And, in reading the afterward from See, I really appreciate the time and effort that went into her research in getting the details right, even down to some of the conversations between the women during the rest breaks between dives.

They did this to me. They did that to me. A woman who thinks that way will never overcome her anger. You are not being punished for your anger. You’re being punished by your anger.”

In addition, I’ve never really read a lot about the time period of the Korean War, in general and, specifically, in regards to what that experience was like for Koreans. (Really, the only thing that comes close is my recent read of Pachinko.) And again, I feel like See really illuminated the daily realities on a personal level, while managing to still portray the presence of a greater power, if you will, running the events behind the scenes. I am embarrassed to say that I had never heard of the 4.3 Incident before reading this and, after reading, am horrified that something like that could happen with so little international awareness or (in the case of the American powers on-site at the time), outrage. It’s heartbreaking to think about, staggering in the scope of the tragedy (I mean, what a misnomer, to name a years-long murderous suppression after a single day), and so incredibly difficult to read. (TW for many types of violence during that section.) And what was almost even worse was the lack of anything supportive in the aftermath – in fact, it was a crime to discuss or refer to the events – and I cannot imagine how painful it was not just to live those experiences, but to then not be able to fully process/mourn afterwards. It’s really no wonder at all the way Mi-ja and Young-sook fall apart. And, though as a reader you cannot help but urge Young-sook to forgive and allow herself to move forwards, as a person, I absolutely understand her perspective and reactions and cannot truly say I would handle it any differently. I, mainly, just internally kept screaming for her to direct her anger at those who actually deserved it, and not another innocent/victim – but life and emotions are complicated. As a side note, even with the acknowledgement that so many innocents were killed, the fact that the “guilt by association” thing still flourished down the family line is unreal to me. I mean, the idea, in the first place, of your family being punished for your mistakes it horrible, but for that to last even after its generally accepted that the original “guilty party” was probably innocent…unbelievable. And last, moving into present day, I enjoyed reading about way the island slowly became “modernized,” with tourists and technology, and the way the younger generations sought opportunities outside of island life. It was so complex, the way that this reaching beyond was encouraged by parents, was a source of pride, yet, at the same time, the inevitable leaving behind of island traditions and history was a sore spot between the generations. This is such an important concept in general, in the ever-more-connected modern world and, within the context of this greater story, was examined so appropriately and deeply.

“Sometimes everything you do is as pointless and as ineffective as shouting into the wind.”

The only issue that I had, really, was with the present-day parts with Mi-ja’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Framing a historical fiction with present day flashes to pull it all together is, in my opinion, a very overused stylistic device. I do see how, with the way Mi-ja and Young-sook’s families intertwine and Young-sook holds onto her anger/blame even in the face of more loss, it is a powerful story-telling tool. And yet…I just wish there was a different (newer?, more creative?) way that authors could use to create fore-shadowing for the past other than using the present to cast it backwards. Anyways, this really shouldn’t have a bearing on your choice of whether to read the book or not, because it’s not bad necessarily, it’s just a personal thing. Also, I wasn’t really sure I understood why the book Heidi was such a big deal. I think I missed whenever/however it was explained. So, if you have read this and followed that part – could you explain it to me? Otherwise, basically, it seemed like an unnecessary detail that was only there as an extra connection between Mi-ja’s great-granddaughter (Clara) and Young-sook…and I didn’t feel that there was a need for any more fabricated connection than what was already naturally there.

“We all suffered from memories. Nor could any of us forget the throat-choking smell of blood or the crows that had swarmed in great clouds over the dead. These things haunted us in our dreams and during every waking moment. But if someone was foolish enough to speak a single word of sadness or was caught shedding a tear over the death of a loved one, then he or she would be arrested.”

Basically, this was just a wonderfully thorough inter-generational historical fiction. Though I’ve said it a few times already, I want to just really emphasize how much I learned from reading this. I know that it’s fiction, but truly, I had no idea about almost any of what this book covered before I picked it up. And I’m so appreciative of the education (and have since done some of my own basic research to learn more). In addition, See does an incredible job exploring the boundaries of friendship and family, the power of forgiveness (or lack thereof), the choices we make to survive and to protect those we love, and the guilt and blame all survivors must contend with. Mi-ja’s and Young-sook’s stories are both tragic, both full of their own unique suffering, and yet they choose to respond to it all in such different ways, both because they feel they have no choice and/or because they cannot see past their own experiences. Watching them live through everything is an emotional experience, up until the very last pages, but it is one that is very much worth it.

4 thoughts on “The Island of Sea Women

  1. This is not out yet for another week here in the U.K. but your fabulous review has made me pre-order it from my local library so I’ll be first when it comes in!.
    I’m looking forward to this!😀

    Liked by 1 person

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