The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
Published by Scribner on March 5th, 2019
Genre: Historical Fiction
“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 tend to gravitate toward historical fiction because I always walk away learning something new about a time period or culture that’s unlike what I know.
The Island of Sea Women is set on the island of Jeju following the separation of North and South in Korea. It focuses on the lives of Young-sook and Mi-ja who are haenyeo — an all-female diving collective. These women dive to great depths into the sea without any equipment to collect food to sell and eat.
The culture of Jeju is completely different than what we’re used to seeing or living. The roles of men and women are reversed: women are the providers while men take care of the children and the household.
Like all of See’s work, Sea Women focuses on the friendship between Young-sook and Mi-ja as they navigate through wars, marriage, and motherhood. Too often in books we’re shown the landscape of a time period through the eyes of men or a single woman. And I loved that we got to experience it through these two main characters who were women. Not only that, we got to see the lives of several haenyeo and how they dealt with tragedy.
Every character felt so realistic and the descriptive writing is so very immersive. It feels like you’re being pulled into the story like you are right there and are feeling every emotion that the characters feel.
I always enjoy See’s beautifully crafted stories and her prose is both lyrical and entrancing. Her stories take you on an emotional journey. There are moments of extreme joy and happiness followed by bouts of grief and sadness. The horrors that occured on the island are truly unimaginable to me.
I appreciated the jumping back and forth between the past and the present.I only wish I got to see more of Young-sook’s life in the present with the arrival of the “strange” family who’ve come to see her. The conclusion felt a bit too abrupt.
I wish Clara had played more of her tapes for Young-sook. Since the whole story was told through Young-sook, we were really missing Mi-ja’s perspective. The tapes would’ve really illuminated that for us as readers. We only got to hear a snippet of what Clara recorded.
But at this point that’s me nitpicking. It’s a beautiful story and was clearly well-researched. I’ll always read See’s work because it doesn’t matter the ethnicity, the time period, or the story line, she always writes such colorful and complex female characters. Even if the characters judge each other for their flaws, See ensures that we get to hear the other person’s side.
This is a story of friendship and forgiveness. And my heart aches even thinking about what these women went through and how they leaned on each other. They found little moments of happiness when diving and that’s kind of how I feel whenever I get to go swimming or scuba diving. Of course, I could never do anything they did without equipment!
If you’re looking to expand your horizons by learning about Korean culture and history, please pick this up. You won’t regret it. And if you feel like your recent reads have been lacking in female empowerment and friendship, you’ll love this book.