The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

One of the things I love about reading is that it gives me the opportunity to learn about places and cultures I would otherwise be likely to go through life knowing little or nothing about. Before reading Lisa See’s latest novel, The Island of Sea Women, I had never heard of the haenyeo communities of Jeju in South Korea, but now I have been enlightened!

The haenyeo, for anyone else who doesn’t know, are female divers who gather seafood such as abalone, octopus and conch from the waters surrounding the island of Jeju. The Island of Sea Women is narrated by Young-sook, a haenyeo whom we follow over a period of many years, from the 1930s to 2008. It’s a story of friendship and betrayal, war and suffering, and the importance of forgiveness – but most of all, it’s a fascinating study of a society of ‘sea women’ and how their way of life changes as the decades go by.

At the beginning of the novel, we see Young-sook joining her village’s diving collective, of which her mother is the leader, and starting to learn the skills she will need in her career as a haenyeo. Although she is excited about taking her first dives with the other women, she is also nervous about the many dangers lurking in the depths of the sea. Fortunately for Young-sook, she has a friend the same age – a girl called Mi-ja – with whom to share her experiences.

Mi-ja is the daughter of a ‘Japanese-collaborator’, at a time when Japanese colonists are disliked and resented across Jeju, but Young-sook loves and trusts her and is closer to her than to her own brothers and sisters. The friendship between Mi-ja and Young-sook endures through loss and tragedy and political turmoil, through marriage and motherhood, through times of peace and times of war, until the day comes when one of the women is faced with a difficult choice – and the decision she makes that day means that nothing will be the same again.

I enjoyed The Island of Sea Women, but it wasn’t always an easy or pleasant book to read – Young-sook and her family live through a very eventful and turbulent period of Korea’s history, including Japanese colonialism, World War II and the Korean War, and Jeju’s strategic location means it is often at the heart of the action. The most memorable part of the book for me was the section covering the ‘4.3 Incident’, the horrific massacre of protesters by police and government forces that took place in April 1948. Although I’d felt that for the first half of the book, the balance between fact and fiction wasn’t quite right and that we were being given a lot of information and detail at the expense of characterisation and plot, from the 4.3 Incident onwards, the story became much more compelling and the characters began to feel very real to me.

Lisa See writes so well about female friendships. Like Pearl and May in Shanghai Girls, Lily and Snow Flower in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and the three girls in China Dolls, Young-sook and Mi-ja have a special, unbreakable bond, yet they also go through some very dark and difficult times that stretch their bond to its limits. As I read, I kept thinking about how important perspective is; we only see things from Young-sook’s point of view in this novel, but had we been given Mi-ja’s side of the story it would have become a different book entirely.

The haenyeo culture is fascinating to read about and See weaves several of their myths, legends and proverbs into the story, showing us the importance haenyeo place on praying to the goddess of the wind and attending religious rituals led by their female shaman. It is in many ways a matriarchal society where the women are the ones who go out to work and provide for their household, while the men stay at home to look after the children. In the haenyeo community, the birth of a girl is welcomed as much as a boy because she will eventually be able to earn money and feed the family, yet it is only men who can perform the ritual of ‘ancestor-worship’ and who are allowed to inherit property.

I thought it was interesting that Young-sook’s husband is insistent that their daughters should be sent to school and given the same opportunities as their sons, while Young-sook, illiterate herself, can’t see the need for female education because it won’t be necessary for a life spent diving into the sea. There is logic behind her viewpoint, because when the story comes up to date in the 21st century, we see that with improvements in education, many of the island’s young women are leaving Jeju for less dangerous jobs on the mainland. Most of the remaining haenyeo are aged over fifty-five – and some are in their seventies and eighties, still spending hours each day submerged in cold water, holding their breath for more than two minutes at a time.

If you would like to find out more about these amazing women and their work, Lisa See has a collection of photographs and videos of the haenyeo on her website.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 1/20 of my 20 Books of Summer

22 thoughts on “The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

  1. cirtnecce says:

    Great review Helen! This is sounds awesome, though I have a feeling, considering the setting of the book, history may take over fiction; but still seems a fascinating read!

    • Helen says:

      There were times when it felt more like non-fiction or a memoir rather than a novel, but that didn’t really matter because it was all so interesting!

  2. Liz says:

    I completely agree with you about reading taking us to otherwise unknowable and unreachable places. The sounds like such an interesting read, Helen, thank you!

  3. Sandra says:

    Oh this does sound good. I very much enjoyed Snow Flower and the Secret Fan yet somehow never managed to read any more by Lisa See. I shall look out for this one.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Lisa See (except maybe China Dolls) and this one is particularly fascinating. I hope you have a chance to read it.

  4. Judy Krueger says:

    Since I am a Lisa See completist, I will be reading this once the wait list at the library settles down. Great review! I am happy to see so many books coming out about Korea.

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