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

The Love Letter by Lucinda Riley

I have been enjoying following Lucinda Riley’s Seven Sisters series over the last few years and am looking forward to starting the newest book, The Moon Sister, which is due to be published later this year. The Love Letter is not part of that series, though – it’s a reissue of one of her earlier novels, first published in 2000 as Seeing Double under the name of Lucinda Edmonds. As explained in the brief Author’s Note which opens the novel, Seeing Double was not a success on its original release, probably because of poor timing – it wasn’t long since the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and the plot involves a scandal within a fictional British royal family. Lucinda and her publisher obviously feel that enough time has now passed to give the book a second chance and a new look and title.

The Love Letter is set in 1996 and begins with young journalist Joanna Haslam reporting on the funeral of Sir James Harrison, one of the most famous actors of his generation, who has died at the age of ninety-five. The funeral is a star-studded affair, attended by celebrities including Harrison’s granddaughter Zoe, a successful actress in her own right, and his film-producer grandson Marcus. The service has only just begun when Rose, an elderly woman sitting beside Joanna, is suddenly taken ill. Joanna offers to accompany the old lady home in a taxi, unaware that by doing so she is taking the first step in a sequence of events that could destroy the British establishment. Within days Rose is dead, but not before sending Joanna a letter, the contents of which hold clues to a shocking secret that some very powerful people will stop at nothing to keep concealed.

This is a very different sort of book from Lucinda Riley…a combination of spy thriller, mystery and romance. I have to admit, I found the plot a bit far-fetched and not always very plausible, but it’s certainly a page-turner – it was difficult to stop reading until I had found out what the letter meant and what the secret was. I did manage to work some of it out for myself (especially as we are told in the Author’s Note before we even start reading that the story is going to involve members of the royal family), but not all of it, because new pieces of the puzzle are being revealed right up to the end of the novel. For a book with six hundred pages, it’s a quicker read than you might expect and a lot of fun to read too, with some surprising plot twists and characters who aren’t quite what they seem.

Unlike the Seven Sisters novels with their dual timeline stories, The Love Letter is set entirely in the modern day (although events from the past provide the answers to the mystery). Having said that, I suppose 1996 is not exactly the ‘modern day’ anymore and the absence of recent technology from the characters’ lives does set the story firmly in its time period. As for the implications for the royal family, I don’t think people would be too bothered by a novel like this today, but I can see why it might have been controversial on publication eighteen years ago.

I think one of Lucinda Riley’s strengths as a writer is in creating characters the reader can really care about and like – and there are several of those in this novel. I loved Joanna from the beginning; she’s such an ordinary, down-to-earth person with the sort of hopes, ambitions and problems that are easy to identify with. I also liked Zoe, who is embroiled in a secret and possibly dangerous love affair, and I became very fond of her brother Marcus too. The only one of the main characters I didn’t warm to was Simon, Joanna’s best friend, although I did have some sympathy with the internal conflicts he faced in trying to choose between his job and his friendships.

The developments towards the end of the book became a bit too dramatic for me, but I was happy with the final few twists which led to the conclusion I’d been hoping for. I’m looking forward to getting back to the Seven Sisters – I have a copy of The Moon Sister which I’m planning to read soon – but The Love Letter made an interesting change.

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review.

Early Warning by Jane Smiley

This is the second in Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy which follows the lives of one American family across a period of a century. The first book, Some Luck, took us from 1920 to the end of 1952, and this one, Early Warning, covers 1953 to 1986.

It had been almost two years since I read Some Luck, so I was worried that I would struggle to remember who the characters were and how they were related to each other. On beginning Early Warning, then, I was relieved to see that Jane Smiley addresses this problem by beginning the novel with a family gathering – the funeral of Walter Langdon, the man who, with his wife Rosanna, had been at the heart of the previous novel. The funeral is attended by all of his adult children – Frank, Joe, Lillian, Henry and Claire – some of whom are now married and have children of their own. As the family sit around a table reminiscing about the past, this gives the reader a chance to get reacquainted with the characters.

So far so good, but once the different branches of the family depart and go back to their own homes, things quickly become much more confusing! In the previous book, the action revolved around the Langdon farm in Iowa, but now that the children have grown up, some of them have moved away and there are now Langdons scattered all over America, in different towns and different states. As the years and decades go by, moving from the 1950s to the 60s, 70s and finally the 80s, the grandchildren grow up too and build lives of their own, bringing even more characters into the story. I was constantly referring to the family tree at the beginning of the book and can’t imagine how I would have coped if I’d been reading it as an ebook!

The novel follows the same structure as the first one, with one chapter devoted to each year. As I mentioned in my Some Luck review, this means that, although it keeps the story moving forward, we are also left with some big gaps. When we leave the characters behind at the end of one chapter, we leap straight into the middle of the following year with the next chapter and haven’t ‘seen’ everything that happened in the meantime. It’s an unusual way to structure a novel and while it’s successful in the sense that it makes the trilogy feel different and memorable, it’s too restrictive and I’m glad not all books are written like this!

There is really very little more that I can say about Early Warning. There are some dramas, of course – births, deaths, marriages, divorces, affairs, house moves and changes of career – but there is no real plot, any more than anybody’s life ‘has a plot’. With so many characters, I couldn’t keep track of everything that was happening, but some of the things that stood out for me in this book were the exploration of Frank’s wife Andy’s mental state and the therapy she undergoes, the rivalry between their twin sons, Michael and Richie, and the pressure Lillian’s husband Arthur find himself under as a result of his job with the CIA. I was also particularly intrigued by the introduction of a new character, Charlie, whom we first meet as a small child and who appears to be unconnected to anyone else in the book. Smiley writes very convincingly from a child’s perspective and I really enjoyed reading these sections and guessing how Charlie would eventually fit into the story.

Some of the major events of the period are featured too, including the Vietnam War and the Cold War, and whereas in Some Luck the family on their Iowa farm were largely sheltered from the outside world, this time, because the geographical scale of the story has broadened, there are family members affected in some way by almost all of the world events touched on in the novel.

I have now started the third book, Golden Age, but with yet another generation of characters to get to know, I’m anticipating an even more confusing read than this one!

The Savage Brood by Martha Rofheart

Having read two of Martha Rofheart’s other books, Lionheart and Burning Sappho (about Richard I and the poet Sappho, respectively), I decided to try her 1978 novel The Savage Brood next. It sounded different from the others, being a multi-generational family saga and concentrating on fictional characters rather than real historical ones. I liked it enough to finish it but, as I so often find with this kind of book, the earlier sections were the best and I struggled to stay interested as the action moved closer towards the modern day.

The novel follows the fortunes of the Savage family, who have a long history as actors of one sort or another. It is divided into three sections which are set in different periods and work almost as self-contained novellas. We begin in Tudor England where we meet one branch of the family, a group of travelling players who make their living moving from town to town in a horse-drawn wagon and putting on performances for the local people. Finding English law too restrictive, the troupe move to Italy where, under the patronage of Cosimo I de’ Medici, they learn the skills of Commedia dell’Arte.

After a short ‘interval’, the story then jumps forward to 1752 where some of the Italian Savages (or Savaggi, as they have become known in the intervening years), return to London’s Drury Lane to work with the great English actor and producer, David Garrick. Garrick identifies young Miranda Savage as a special talent, but loses her when she moves to America – just in time for the Revolution.

There’s another interval and then we skip forward again, this time to San Francisco in 1906. The Savages have now made a name for themselves as vaudeville entertainers, but this form of theatre is in its final days as the first silent films begin to make their appearance. This section of the novel takes us right through both world wars and follows the careers of comic actor Sammy Savage, showboat musician Solange Sauvage, and Hollywood star JP Savage.

As I said, the first two sections were the most enjoyable, at least in my opinion. The third dragged on for too long, and except for the wartime parts, when the action moves to France for a while, I found the storyline much less interesting. The characters were unlikeable and self-obsessed, lacking the charisma of some of their earlier ancestors and little more than stereotypes of early Hollywood stars. By contrast, I loved the eighteenth century section and was particularly fond of Miranda Savage’s cousin Beau, who rises from humble beginnings to become a stage and fashion icon. Taken as a whole, though, I found the saga of the Savages unconvincing, with too many chance encounters between people who turn out to be distant Savage cousins.

Although Rofheart does acknowledge that women couldn’t act on stage in England until the Restoration, she does depict some of her sixteenth century female characters as acting with a travelling troupe. I didn’t think women were allowed to perform at all during that period (apart from in Italy), so that bothered me while I was reading, although I have since discovered a book on Women Players in England, 1500–1660, which suggests that women may have had more opportunities to act in sixteenth century England than I had imagined, at least on an amateur basis. I really don’t know enough about the subject to comment any further on Rofheart’s historical accuracy.

Despite the problems I had with The Savage Brood, I think it will be a fascinating read for anyone interested in the theatre, incorporating almost every type of acting you can think of – Commedia dell’Arte, Shakespeare, vaudeville, film and more – set against a backdrop of major historical events. I’m not really in any hurry to read the rest of Martha Rofheart’s books, but if anyone has read The Alexandrian, Cry God for Glendower and Fortune Made His Sword I would like to know if you enjoyed them and if you think they’re better than this one?

Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp

I discovered Margery Sharp through Jane of Beyond Eden Rock who, for the last few years, has been hosting an annual Margery Sharp Day on the author’s birthday. This year, Jane is doing something slightly different: she has put together a Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors to celebrate the work of some of her favourite writers throughout the year. Margery Sharp is first on the list and as I’ve enjoyed her books in the past, I wanted to join in.

Britannia Mews (1946) is my fourth Margery Sharp novel and probably my favourite so far. Beginning in the 1870s and taking us through to the 1940s, it follows the story of Adelaide Culver from childhood to old age. We first meet Adelaide as a curious ten-year-old exploring Britannia Mews, a London street inhabited by servants and coachmen – a street which is considered less than respectable and off limits to middle-class children like Adelaide. Returning to the Culver’s comfortable townhouse in nearby Albion Place, Adelaide has no idea that in just a few years’ time Britannia Mews will be her home.

It’s all cousin Alice’s fault; if she hadn’t been suffering from a cold and missed their drawing lesson, Adelaide would never have been left alone with their drawing master, Henry Lambert, and then he might never have told her that he loved her. But Alice does have a cold and Mr Lambert does declare his love for Adelaide – and Adelaide, despite knowing that her parents will disapprove, does agree to marry him.

Their marriage takes place on the day the rest of the Culver family move away to a lovely new house in the countryside. Adelaide, meanwhile, is moving into Mr Lambert’s rooms above a coach house in Britannia Mews. Estranged from her family, living in what is rapidly becoming a slum and finding that her new husband is not quite the person she thought he was, married life proves to be very challenging for Adelaide. When she finally has the opportunity to escape from Britannia Mews, however, she must decide whether she really wants to leave the street that has become her home.

Britannia Mews is very different from the other books I’ve read by Margery Sharp – The Nutmeg Tree, The Flowering Thorn and Cluny Brown. All three of those are lovely novels but they are much lighter in tone and, although Britannia Mews is not entirely without its moments of wit and humour, in general this is a darker and more serious story. I don’t want to give the impression that it’s a depressing one, though, because it isn’t. Yes, Adelaide’s life is difficult, at least at first, but it’s her own life – she has made her own choices and had to live with them, made her own mistakes and had to find her own solutions. Unlike her cousin Alice, who represents the ideal of what a Victorian woman should be, Adelaide is unconventional, independent and, by the time the twentieth century arrives, an inspiration to the younger generation.

One woman in particular who belongs to the younger generation is Dorothy – Dodo – Baker, daughter of Adelaide’s cousin Alice. Like Adelaide before her, Dodo feels stifled by the middle-class circles in which her parents move and she knows she wants something different out of life. Britannia Mews, which by the 1920s has become a lively and fashionable address, is, for Dodo as well as for Adelaide, a symbol of freedom and the opportunity to be who you want to be. The second half of the novel is very much Dodo’s story rather than Adelaide’s; it took me a while to adjust to the change of heroine but once I did I found Dodo just as interesting to read about. I enjoyed watching her get to know the Lamberts and waiting to see whether she would uncover the secret they had kept hidden for so many years.

Of course, the most important character of all is Britannia Mews itself, a street which seems to cast a spell over those who live there, pulling them back every time they might think about leaving. I loved reading about the changing nature of the street over the years and the people who inhabited it at various times in its history. I was also fascinated by the descriptions of the Puppet Theatre which Adelaide opens in one of the old coach-houses and the magnificent hand-made puppets created by Henry Lambert.

This was a wonderful choice of book to celebrate Margery Sharp’s birthday this year and I’m hoping to join in with some of Jane’s other Birthday Book authors in the months to come.

The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton

This 1908 novel from the author of the Father Brown mystery series is subtitled A Nightmare and it certainly does have a dreamlike feel. I picked it up expecting a vintage detective novel and emerged at the other end wondering what on earth I had just been reading and what it meant.

The novel opens with a conversation between two men who meet for the first time one evening in Saffron Park in London. One, Lucian Gregory, is an anarchist poet; the other, Gabriel Syme, is a member of the secret anti-anarchist police. They spend the whole of the first chapter debating the meanings of anarchy and of law and order, using arguments like this:

Gregory struck out with his stick at the lamp-post, and then at the tree. “About this and this,” he cried; “about order and anarchy. There is your precious order, that lean, iron lamp, ugly and barren; and there is anarchy, rich, living, reproducing itself—there is anarchy, splendid in green and gold.”

“All the same,” replied Syme patiently, “just at present you only see the tree by the light of the lamp. I wonder when you would ever see the lamp by the light of the tree.”

And this:

“An artist disregards all governments, abolishes all conventions. The poet delights in disorder only. If it were not so, the most poetical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway.”

“So it is,” said Mr. Syme.

“Nonsense!” said Gregory, who was very rational when anyone else attempted paradox.

It seems they will never agree, but to at least prove that he is serious about his cause, Gregory invites Syme to accompany him to an underground meeting of anarchists. Gregory gets more than he bargained for, however, when Syme puts himself forward for a position in which he himself had been interested: one of seven coveted seats on the Council of the Seven Days, the central council of the European anarchists.

Elected to the council and given the code name Thursday, Syme is introduced to his fellow days of the week, but will he be able to prevent them from guessing that he is an undercover policeman? And who is Sunday, their mysterious and sinister leader who is so big, so powerful and so much larger than life?

I don’t think there is much more I can say about the plot without spoiling the story. I can’t discuss the themes of the novel either, or the symbolism it contains, because those things are also spoilers. It’s such a strange and unusual book that I really think it’s best not to know too much about it before you begin. Just be aware that it’s not a conventional mystery or detective novel (or a conventional anything). There are parts that I loved, such as a scene where Syme is followed through the streets of London in the snow; there are funny moments too, some witty and amusing dialogue, and lots of thought-provoking philosophical ideas. At other times it becomes a little bit too bizarre, particularly after the action moves to France halfway through the book.

There are plot twists throughout the novel, some of which are quite predictable – but the revelations near the end of the book were not what I had been expecting at all. Looking back, there were plenty of hints and clues, but I didn’t pick up on them. I’m sure I didn’t fully grasp what Chesterton was trying to say, but I think there are probably different ways to interpret this book anyway. It certainly left me with a lot to think about and I love it when that happens – when you continue to engage with a story even after you’ve turned the final page.

I don’t have any more of Chesterton’s books, but I see there are some I could read for free at Project Gutenberg. I have previously read two of his Father Brown short stories (included in Miraculous Mysteries and Murder Under the Christmas Tree); should I read more of those or is there another of his books that you would recommend?

Archangel by Robert Harris

After reading Conclave recently and reminding myself of how much I love Robert Harris, I was pleased to find a copy of Archangel at the library. Although this was not one that sounded particularly appealing to me and I suspected it wasn’t going to be a favourite, I still wanted to read it – the other Harris novels I’ve read have been his newer ones and I was curious to see what his earlier books were like (Archangel was published in 1998).

The story is set in Russia in the 1990s, during the Boris Yeltsin years just after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. British historian Christopher Kelso – better known as ‘Fluke’, for reasons which are explained within the novel – is attending a conference in Moscow at which the recent opening of the Soviet archives will be discussed. During the conference, Fluke is approached by Papu Rapava, an elderly man who claims that he was present at the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and that he witnessed the theft of a black notebook which belonged to Stalin and was believed to be his secret diary.

This diary, if it really exists, could be the academic breakthrough Fluke needs to revive his career, but it will also be dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands. Choosing to believe that Rapava is telling the truth, Fluke begins a search for the notebook – but what he finds is not quite what he had expected. Following a trail of clues leading north to the remote city of Archangel, he makes a discovery that could affect not only his own future but Russia’s future as well.

The first thing to say is that this book, being more of a conventional thriller, is quite different from the other five Robert Harris books I’ve read. It’s also my least favourite so far, but I’d had a feeling that would be the case, so at least my expectations weren’t too high! I did find things to enjoy and at times I was completely gripped, but there were too many other aspects of the book that were a problem for me.

First of all, the characters: because of the nature of the story, most of the characters are very unlikeable – a mixture of ambitious politicians, unscrupulous journalists and people with dangerous ideas. As for Fluke Kelso, our hero, I found him bland and uninteresting, especially when compared with the protagonists of other Harris novels; he certainly lacked the depth and complexity of Cardinal Lomeli in my most recent Harris read, Conclave. The character who was potentially most engaging, Rapava’s daughter Zinaida, had an important role but we didn’t see as much of her as I would have liked.

In terms of plot, the novel gets off to a promising start, with Fluke learning about the night of Stalin’s death and then following clues which he hopes will lead him to the mysterious black notebook. However, the big revelation, when it comes, is something so far-fetched I just couldn’t believe in it, and the scenes which follow feel over the top and implausible too, which was a shame after so much care had been put into building the tension and creating a sense of mystery.

The descriptions of 1990s Moscow and snowbound Archangel are very well done and, as I’ve said, the book is quite a pageturner at times, so I still think it’s worth reading – particularly if you are more interested in Soviet history than I am. Apparently there was a BBC adaptation in 2005 starring Daniel Craig. Has anyone seen it?