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