The Island of Sea Womenby Lisa See Published 05 Mar 2019
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A new novel from Lisa See, the New York Times bestselling author of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, about female friendship and family secrets on a small Korean island.
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.
"The Island of Sea Women" Reviews
This book was soo good and sad and did I say good!? It’s now on one of my Amazon wishlists!!
photo credit: https://www.deepblu.com/mag/index.php...
Full of history, culture and female collectivity, The Island of Sea Women spans generations while showcasing the women who put their lives at risk for tradition.
Author Lisa See explores the haenyeo (Korean for 'sea women'), female freedivers of the South Korean island of Jeju, who have trained their bodies to withstand the extremes of the surrounding waters to gather marine life from the ocean's floor. But their physical adaptability appears to be part metaphor for the very necessary emotional resilience that these characters' lives will require of them. Love, loss, friendship, betrayal, colonization and massacre... the smiles and tragedies ride the waves hand in hand, and the support of a true sisterhood ensures no one drowns in their suffering.
I found this novel absolutely fascinating as I learned more about this women-focused society I had only heard about a few times prior. The communal spirit of this culture was so inspiring. But this story mirrors the depths of the sea as it alternates between present day (2008) and past (1938-1975), showing the evolution of relationships, suffering and cultural generation gaps that transition traditions into past tense. Please know this story is absolutely heartbreaking in its journey, and the reader will feel it all. There is raw anger, injustice, sorrow, but also hope. As the story of these women teaches readers about sacrifice, it also teaches that it is never too late to forgive, and there is no better lesson to learn.
My favorite quote:
“Children are hope and joy. On land, you will be a mother. In the sea, you can be a grieving widow. Your tears will be added to the oceans of salty tears that wash in great waves across our planet. This I know. If you try to live, you can live on well.”
Audiobook narrated by the talented Jennifer Lim.
“How do we fall in love? ... How different it is with friendship. No one picks a friend for us. We come together by choice. We are not tied together through ceremony or the responsibility to create a son. We tie ourselves together through moment. The spark when we first meet. Laughter and tears shared. Secrets packed away to be treasured, hoarded, and protected. The wonder that someone can be so different from you and yet still understand your heart in a way no one else ever will.”
This was a capturing read encircling the lives of two female friends on the island of Jeju. This book follows the lives of Young-sook and Mi-ja, two girls from very different backgrounds whose lives intertwine. Young-sook comes from a traditional Haenyeo family; all female members have been part of their village's all female diving collective. Mi-ja, meanwhile, is the offspring of a collaborator and is sent to live in the village with her aunt and uncle. While these two lives intertwine, friendship blossoms and both become Haenyeo and part of the sea.
This book chronicles their to lives, told from the perspective of Young-sook, as they live through the Japanese colonisation of Korea, both World Wars and the Korean War, as well as capturing the force of the introduction of technology (the internet, TV, electricity) to the small village, to the more specific introductions of wet-suits for the divers to wear. However, through forces and atrocities (often all very shocking and almost unbelievable to read due to the sheer volume of sadistic and heinous acts) during these turbulent times, their friendship is shattered apart by their individual choices which are inextricably tangled, effecting the next generation of their families.
This was a highly valued learning experience for me. While I have read a bit about the Haenyeo before and the colonisation of Korea in the book "White Chrysanthemum", this book focused mainly on the Island of Jeju during turbulent times, and in particular, the effect this has been on the Haenyeo. This book was highly informational, and often shocking, detailing the life as a Haenyeo and the fatalities they face, as well as other arduous cultural practices. We are witness to how society is rooted in Confucianism, and yet, the island of Jeju, with particular regards to the Haeyneo, live interestingly and rarely in a matri-focal society. I particular loved learning about the Haenyeo life, especially the diving and being in the water for long periods of time (it has even motivated me to take up swimming again!).
Learning of Korean culture, Haenyeo culture and Jeju history through the fictional tales of these two women was compelling. I loved all the knowledge that Lisa See was able to compact into this book. This was a much needed and capturing read, both vivid and empathetic. It has alighted a curiosity in me to learn more about Haenyeo culture.
“The sea is better than a mother. You can love your mother, and she still might leave you. You can love or hate the sea, but it will always be there. Forever. The sea has been the center of her life. It has nurtured her and stolen from her, but it has never left.”
I'm sure I'm in the minority on this one. And to be honest, I'm torn. I'm a big Lisa See fan. I've read a number of her books. Some I've loved, some not so much. I've attended numerous talks by her and will always try and see her speak when I can. I have one of her books, Peony in Love, that I've been holding on to years to read. I just always want to have one of her books in reserve. (Yup, weird book habits). But with this one....I'm just wavering in my thoughts.
First, love, love, love the cover. Now, the story is told from the point of view of two young Korean girls, Mi-ja and Young-sook, living in the Jeju islands. You learn of their lives, the horrors they lived through, but ultimately you learn in detail of what these women do....they work in the sea, diving for food, for their families. Women go to work to support their families and men stay at home to watch the children. You learn of the history of these islands and the amazing feats these women perform on a daily basis. You watch them grow, and ultimately, you see what tears them apart. Amazing! I'm a fan of historical fiction and you learn a lot here. So fascinating to hear of these women, I'm a big lover of the sea so I found this very fascinating. And let's face it, no one can write a female tight-friendship story that is torn due to some 'conflict' like Lisa See. At times, this one took me back to reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. But.....at other times, I found it was dragging a bit and I found my mind wandering. I listened to the audio and all the names, at time, I did get confused and wished I had print.
I really enjoyed her last story, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, and perhaps I compared the two. Just seemed for me, this one was slow at times, hence my lower rating. I always start out reading a book thinking it's a 4 star and as I read, I adjust my rating. Though I'm very, very stingy with 5 stars. Overall, I'm very glad I read this one and always look forward to her next book.
I first learned about the Korean island of Jeju and the Haenyeo, the female divers, the fisher women who were the major providers of food and income for their families, when I read White Chrysanthemum. It was a story of the Japanese occupation of Korea and the horrors of young women being taken by the Japanese to be a “comfort workers” and a young haenyeo is taken. See’s novel focuses specifically on the lives of the Haenyeo spanning decades and is a much more in depth look. She gives wonderful descriptions, at times a lot of detail, about the culture of the collective of women, the rituals and rules, spoken and unspoken, how they dive with no equipment and harvest food from the sea.
There are several layers to this story, though. It’s a story of a friendship that becomes fractured, of grief, of a culture, the broader story of a country’s history told through the lives of two women. I was interested early on when we meet Young-sook, near eighty perhaps, as we discover that there has been a rift between her and her best friend Mi-ja for many years. I was interested in knowing what caused it. The story unfolds, moving through time telling of the bond they formed as children, as haenyeoIt tells of events in their lives, both happy and heartbreaking as they grow up during the Japanese occupation, through their childhood, their marriages, their children. Initially, it lacked an emotional connection for me, but further on in the story, I felt for these women and their deep sadness and loss portrayed here. There is one brutal scene in particular that is just gut wrenching.
I really didn’t know much about the history of Korea leading up to North and South Korea . I didn’t know what the Bukchon massacre was or the strategic importance of Jeju, or the political significance that resulted in some horrific things that happened here. The strength of the book for me was the depiction of this history, learning things I never knew of, about a culture and a country I didn’t know a lot about. I found it to be a very worth while read, as I have found with all of the books by Lisa See that I have read.
This was a regular monthly read with Diane and Esil. Thanks as always for reading with me.
I received an advanced copy of this book from Scribner through both Edelweiss and NetGalley.
“As the Korean saying goes, *Haenyos* do the work of the dead in the land of the living”.
“Every woman who enters the sea carries a coffin on her back. In this world, the undersea world, we tow the burdens of a hard life”.
Women harvest together, sort together, and sell together. The sea itself is communal.
With no breathing equipment, the deep-sea diving Korean women (*Haenyos*), hold their breath for two minutes, diving 65 feet deep to harvest seafood: abalone, shellfish, sea urchins, octopus, conches, sea slugs, sea cucumbers, oysters, and squid.
Years ago, Haenyos officially retired at age 55. Today, it’s hard to find Haenyos under the age off 55.
In recent years, their numbers are decreasing dramatically. It’s estimated that the haenyo will be gone in twenty years unless more women step forward.
Diving as these women do can be very dangerous. Strokes are common with years of diving.
Dr Shin, ( a minor character), says: “You Haenyo learn from your mothers and grandmothers, but what they taught you is the worst thing you can do. All those short breaths, followed by a deep dive, where you hold your breath the entire time, and then the quick rise to the surface. And then you do it again and again and again? It’s terrible and very dangerous”.
Air-Bubbles can get into the women’s veins and lungs and cause brain damage.
One of the characters, *Yu-ri* - did have an accident. “Yu-ri went into the sea one person, and came out another”.
Another character died in the sea. Two tragedies early in the storytelling....
Yet...Haenyeo - female divers in the Korean Province of *Jeju*, are known for their strength, their independent spirit, their iron will and determination. Their identity was strongly associated with diving. The dangers didn’t influence their thinking. The sea was their life!
Originally, diving was an exclusively male profession. By the 18th century, women divers outnumbered the male divers.
Gender roles were reversed. Since women divers were the primary breadwinners - their husbands took care of the domestic needs: he looked after children, did the shopping, and cooked the meals.
“Soup with titlefish, White radish, and seaweed, a bowl of seasoned bracken, turnip and green onion buckwheat pancakes”.
Or....Black pig grilled with soy paste and cabbage kimchi.
Or.....Sea urchin soup. .....etc.
The HISTORICAL ‘FACTS’ were FASCINATING to me. I was naturally curious about the extraordinary diving women - (their culture, their relationships with their mother’s, grandmothers, husbands, and their respect for the sea), the island itself: *Jetju* - the history between the Japanese and Koreans - and the horrific Bukchon Massacre.
Lisa Sea brought awareness to devastating historical events that were essentially kept secret for years - Japanese rule, resistance, and retaliation. A riot spread like a forest fire.....
In the same way author Tatiana de Rosnay - in “Sara’s Key”, exposed secrets that the French had hidden ( tried to keep secret), - that France participated in roundups - French police knowingly sent Jews to the gas chambers to Auschwitz. .....
Lisa Sea exposed a very dark time in Jeju’s history - (tried to keep secret).
American soldiers discovered 97 bodies that were killed and buried by the government. They also encountered police who were executing 76 villagers. Between 14,000, and 30,000, people died as a result of the rebellion.
The FICTIONAL STORY .....centered around a friendship between two girls ....both Haenyo divers - their coming of age together - with their trials and tribulations started out interesting. ( both from very different backgrounds: both independently interesting females), but didn’t always hold my interest. I felt ‘their’ story was ‘literary-ordinary’. It wasn’t awful....but ‘common’ storytelling.
I have no idea - how history and fiction work together. I read a great quote from another book reviewer not long ago: she enjoyed the facts of the story - the fiction - and not knowing the difference between either.
I thought that was GREAT insight.... with an overall great reading experience.
For me - I ‘was’ aware of what was FACT and what was FICTION.
I often don’t care if the history is perfect. If I’m enjoying the story and the characters, I’m simply enjoying the book.... but this time the HISTORY was my favorite.
I found the history fascinating, and interesting, .....
The Haenyos are BEAUTIFUL WOMEN - inside and out......with AMAZING PHOTOS that can be found online. The older women are women, I would enjoy sitting with sharing tea.....( get to know them more).
The women’s languages interested me - their dispositions - work ethics- etc.
“ The Villiage of Widows”.....was a fascinating chapter in this book.
I wanted to know more about role of the village leaders, their resistance to traditional education, ( and why THE SEA trumped everything else in their lives).....when often they were left with physical pain from decades of the water pressure....to their ears, joints - headaches and even painful hips from the “Tewak” they carried.
A Tewak is a flotation device about the size of a basketball that sits at the surface of the water with a net hanging beneath it to catch the harvest. Its HUGE ....( see photos online)
I liked learning about a vocal practice the women did called “Sumbisori”. It’s a breathing technique used by whales and seals. The diving women practiced too as it allowed them to dive deeper below sea level.
I was also interested in political upheavals. They were gut wrenching: I learned a lot.
My only - ‘slight’ - criticism was the fictional story. It was ‘fair’ for me. Good...just not over-the-top extraordinary. Doesn’t really matter - as I got what I wanted from this book - An awakening to new history .... which I’ll still be interested in - years from now. Lisa Sea gave me ( and I believed), other readers a great gift with “The Island of Sea Women”.
I also agree with the reader who said.....”I’d read the phone book if Lisa Sea wrote it”.
Sincere thanks to Scriber Publishing, Netgalley, and Lisa Sea