An old woman sits on the beach, a cushion strapped to her bottom, sorting algae that's washed ashore. ~ Opening of The Island of Sea Women
The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
Fiction/Historical; 374 pgs
Lisa See is one of my favorite authors and so I had high expectations going into The Island of Sea Women. You can tell how much she cares about her characters and the subject matter she writes about in her research and weaving together of each story.
The Island of Sea Women is the story of two friends, Mi-ja and Young-sook, told from the perspective of Young-sook. Best friends since childhood, these two girls could not come from more different backgrounds. They live on the Korean island of Jeju and are taught the ways of the haenyeo. When they are old enough, they join their village's all-female diving collective as baby divers, a tradition passed on through the generations. These women provide for their families while their men watch over their children. The earnings the women make pay for their food and shelter and for their sons to go to school. The women train their bodies and minds to withstand long periods under water, not to mention the varying water temperatures throughout the seasons, with nothing but their wits and skill. It is a dangerous job, but one that is steeped in tradition and honor.
The novel spans the two friend's lifetime, from their childhood together through their late adulthood, beginning in the 1930's to present day. Young-sook is part of a big family and her mother is the leader of the village diving collective, which Young-sook is one day expected to inherit. Mi-ja is the daughter of a father who collaborated with the Japanese occupiers and who lives with an aunt and uncle who resent her and the taint she brings with her when she comes to live with them after her parents' deaths. Within the pages of the novel, the reader gets to know both girls, their strengths and their weaknesses.
I love how human and genuine Lisa See's characters are, vulnerable and yet strong. I really came to care for both Young-sook and Mi-ja. They went through so much together and separately over the course of their lives. The reader sees two friends who are inseparable be torn apart by events outside of their control--anger, blame and guilt keeping them from reaching out to one another. It is through their eyes, or more so Young-sook's, that Lisa See walks us through the history of Jeju island, exploring both the beauty of the land, sea and culture, and also the horrors that took place there: from the occupation by the Japanese to that of the Americans following World War II, the Korean War and its aftermath--and everything in between. So many heartbreaking moments! And so much grief.
I had so many feelings as I read this novel and it was an eye-opener as to the history of the area. I confess I had not known much about it at all. People really are the worst monsters--greed, fear, anger and the thirst of power can bring out the worst in people. Make them so cruel. But there are also people who are kind and do what they can to help--who strive to make things better--and this leads to hope even in the darkest of times.
I thought it was interesting to see how the haenyeo evolved over time in terms of clothing worn to utilizing modern diving equipment. The haenyeo way of life is dying out as progress continues. It isn't what it once was. It's bittersweet. Traditions lost, but the need for those traditions no longer exist in the same way. It's a novel about friendship, redemption, forgiveness, the strength of the human spirit.
The Island of Sea Woman is another example of how such a heart-wrenching book can be so beautiful at the same time. My first book of the year earns five paws from me.
Author Lisa See posted an article which includes a sampling of the divers' songs on her Facebook page that I cannot resist but share with you: Saving the Songs of South Korea’s Female Divers. Be sure and check it out if you are interested!
Challenge met: 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge #histficreadingchallenge
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Great review! For some reason, this reminds me of The Sound of Waves, which is also about Pearl Divers but in JapanReplyDelete
Eustacia - Thank you! I will have to look for Sound Waves. I had read a little about the Japanese divers when I was researching the haenyeo.Delete
This sounds like a great read. I really know nothing about this history so I think it would be very interesting.ReplyDelete
Carole - It really was. I have a couple other books that are set around the same time period and place, and I look forward to reading those as well.Delete
I've seen some positive reviews of this one--glad you enjoyed it as well. Five paws is praise, indeed.ReplyDelete
Jenclair - Lisa See has yet to let me down.Delete
Beautiful review Wendy and a book I want to read. A few women in my book read have recommended it as well.ReplyDelete
Diane - Thank you! I hope you do get a chance to read this some day.Delete
I loved this book as well and felt so invested in the women and their story. Glad you enjoyed it!ReplyDelete
Helen - It was so good, wasn't it? I am glad I finally read it.Delete
Here's hoping the rest of the books you read this year are equally good! :)ReplyDelete
Lark - So far my reading has been very good this year. Not all 5 paws but still enjoyable. :-)Delete
Great review Wendy. Lisa See has written some really good historical novels hasn't she? I need to pick up this or another of her books soon. It's been a while.ReplyDelete
Iliana - Thank you! I love her work. She's one of my favorite authors. I hope you like this one when you read it.Delete
That sounds great. But if there are a lot of descriptions of diving under the water I probably wouldn't be able to read it since deep water scares me. lolReplyDelete
Mary - More of the book takes place on land than it does in the sea, but there are a couple of scenes that might be too much for you.Delete
I love Lisa See as well, but I haven't read this yet. I loved your review!ReplyDelete
Tammy - Thank you!Delete
I've enjoyed a few of Lisa See's books so this one is definitely on my to-read list. Great review, Wendy!ReplyDelete
Melody - I hope you get a chance to read this one, Melody!Delete
I love Lisa See's books. I love the research and depth of emotion she has in them and her characters.ReplyDelete
Serena - I love her books too.Delete
Friendship between a Korean woman and a Japanese woman -- seems to be a complex friendship, given what I've seen of Korean history in Asian dramas (but don't know how true those portrayals are). Add to that, the context of deep sea diving -- very interesting. Hadn't heard of Lisa See before, so thanks for sharing.ReplyDelete
~ Lex (lexlingua.co)
Lex - Lisa See is one of my favorite authors. I have yet to read all her books but everyone I have read, I have loved. The two women are actually both Korean. Mi-ja's father was a collaborator with the Japanese during the time they were occupying Korea. I apologize for not making that more clear.Delete
I have a few books by Lisa See on my bookshelf but I'm embarrassed to say I have yet to read them. Your post makes me want to do so, sooner rather than later. Great review!ReplyDelete
Laura - I have enjoyed all the books I have read by her. I hope you will like the ones you have! I can say that about a couple of authors myself--that I have several of their books but haven't read them. :-) Some day, right?Delete
I put this on my TBR back when it came out, but have not yet picked it up. You have written a wonderful review that definitely has me wanting to move this one up my TBR. I know nothing about this time or these women, so it is time for sure.ReplyDelete
Carla - It took me awhile to get to it, but I'm glad I finally did. I hope you enjoy it when you read it!Delete
Wow, this sounds like such a beautiful read. I have a copy sitting on my shelf right now and really need to read it soon.ReplyDelete
Suzanne - It really was good. I hope you like it when you read it.Delete
I have several Lisa See books (including this one) sitting on my shelf and they all look absolutely gorgeous. I'm looking forward to reading it - especially after hearing how much you enjoyed it.ReplyDelete
Katherine - Her books are so good. I hope you enjoy The Island of Sea Women when you read it.Delete
It's been a long time since I have read a Lisa See book. They are always powerful and never fail to deliver. I need to do some catchup. Glad to hear that this one is just as good.ReplyDelete
Athira - I hope you get a chance to read this one at some point!Delete
I’ll be adding this to my list, wonderful review.ReplyDelete
Tina - Thank you! I hope you enjoy it if you read it!Delete