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

China Dolls by Lisa See

China Dolls Lisa See is a Chinese-American author whose books deal with various aspects of Chinese history and culture. I had mixed feelings about the first one I read, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but I loved Shanghai Girls and its sequel Dreams of Joy, so I was looking forward to reading her new novel, China Dolls.

Beginning in 1938, China Dolls is a fictional account of three young women who meet at an audition for dancers at San Francisco’s Forbidden City nightclub.

First there’s Grace Lee, who grew up in a small town in Ohio – a town so small that, apart from her parents, Grace has never met another Chinese person and has never even tasted Chinese food. She has come to San Francisco to escape from her abusive father and is hoping to build a career for herself in show business.

Then there’s Helen Fong, whose family is one of the richest and most respected in Chinatown. Her strict parents disapprove of her decision to work in a nightclub…until Helen points out that she will be earning much more than in her current job at the Chinese Telephone Exchange. Helen appears to have led a sheltered life, but is hiding some secrets which she is reluctant to reveal even to her friends.

Finally, there’s Ruby Tom from Hawaii. Ruby, who is the most outgoing and flamboyant of the three, also has a big secret: although she has allowed everyone to think she is Chinese, she is actually Japanese. If the authorities learn the truth, Ruby could be in trouble, especially when anti-Japanese sentiment increases following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Three girls with very different personalities and from very different backgrounds! Despite having little in common, they are drawn together that day at the audition and become friends, helping and supporting each other as they try to fulfil their ambitions. As the months and years go by, though, the girls find that their friendship is tested by a series of lies and betrayals, disagreements and withheld secrets.

China Dolls was compelling enough to keep me interested right to the end but I found it quite disappointing after Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy. The main reason for my disappointment was something which should have been the strong point of the book: the friendship between Grace, Helen and Ruby. It just wasn’t convincing at all! The three of them didn’t even seem to like each other and were certainly not ‘like the Three Musketeers’, as they claimed. They said and did some terrible things to each other and I couldn’t understand why they didn’t just go their separate ways in life.

The structure of the novel, with the three girls taking turns to narrate chapters, was also a problem for me. I got the impression that the story Lisa See really wanted to write was Grace’s – she is the easiest character to like and identify with, and she seemed to get a few more chapters than the others too – so I think I would rather have had the entire book written from Grace’s perspective. Having said that, Ruby’s story had the potential to be the most interesting, particularly after Pearl Harbor, and she was also the only one whose narrative voice felt significantly different (filled with some of the lively slang of the period); the other two were interchangeable and sometimes it was easy to forget who was narrating.

Grace, as I’ve mentioned, was my favourite of the three girls but she didn’t have much competition as I really disliked both Helen and Ruby – particularly Helen, whom I never really felt I understood or could have any sympathy for, despite some of the ordeals she had been through. Of the novel’s other characters, only one or two play a significant part in the story, and the rest are just secondary – though I was interested to discover, after finishing the book, that some of the characters I’d assumed were fictional were actually people who really existed.

The historical backdrop of the story is excellent; everything feels thoroughly researched and we are given lot of great insights into the entertainment world of the 1930s and 1940s, in particular what it was like to work in a Chinese nightclub and the challenges facing the Chinese performers. The book deals with lots of serious issues – from racism and prejudice to domestic violence and wartime atrocities – but because the main characters were so shallow, I felt that these issues weren’t explored in as much depth as they could have been.

So, not a favourite Lisa See novel, but still worth reading for its depiction of Chinese American life in the first half of the twentieth century.

Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

Dreams of Joy is the sequel to Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls which I read in October. When I reached the end of Shanghai Girls and found that it finished with a big cliffhanger, I was desperate to find out what happened next. Luckily my library had a copy of the sequel available so I didn’t have long to wait. And this one, in my opinion, is the better of the two books. It certainly has a more satisfying ending!

It’s difficult to know how much to say about the plot of a sequel because I know there may be people reading this who haven’t yet read Shanghai Girls and I would hate to spoil things for anyone. All I will tell you then is that Dreams of Joy is set in China during the 1950s and is the story of nineteen-year-old Joy Louie, the daughter of one of the characters in the previous novel. Joy has recently made a discovery that has thrown her life into turmoil and she decides to leave her home in Los Angeles and travel to Shanghai in search of answers. She’s also looking forward to becoming part of Chairman Mao’s new communist China…but the longer she spends there the more she begins to think that maybe communism isn’t quite as wonderful as it seemed at first.

The story is told in the form of alternating narratives by Joy and another character from Shanghai Girls, Pearl. Although I didn’t think there was a lot of difference in the style of Pearl’s narrative voice and Joy’s, there are some big differences in attitude with Pearl being more cautious and cynical about communism and Joy full of enthusiasm, at least at first. It was good to have the chance to see things from two opposing viewpoints. Joy could be frustratingly naïve at times, but that’s only because we have the benefit of knowing what would happen during Mao’s regime.

The only other book I’ve read about communism in China was Wild Swans by Jung Chang (one of the best books I read last year, by the way, and one I highly recommend you read if you haven’t already). I had forgotten just how horrible some of the things that happened during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward were. The Great Leap Forward included Mao’s campaign to increase the country’s steel production, at the expense of agriculture, which resulted in a severe famine. Lisa See goes into quite a lot of detail about what happened during this period, so there are some horrific descriptions of cruelty, starvation and suffering, particularly in the sections where Joy is living in Green Dragon Village, a commune in the countryside. Lisa See really likes to put her characters through some terrible ordeals, but the book isn’t completely bleak and depressing – it’s also a story about the relationship between sisters Pearl and May and the special bond each of them has with Joy.

So is it necessary to have read Shanghai Girls first? I would say it’s not completely essential, as I’m sure this book could easily be understood and enjoyed on its own, but my personal recommendation would be to read both of them in the correct order beginning with Shanghai Girls.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Shanghai Girls tells the story of two beautiful Chinese sisters, Pearl and May Chin, who are leading glamorous lives working as models in Shanghai. When their father gambles away all his money, he attempts to pay his debts by selling the girls to husbands who have come from America to look for Chinese wives. It’s 1937, however, and May and Pearl are modern women; they expect to make their own decisions and be allowed to choose their own husbands. Finding that this freedom has been taken away from them, they try to rebel against their arranged marriages, but are eventually forced to leave China behind and travel to Los Angeles to live with men they barely know. We then follow Pearl and May as they try to adapt to life in America, but find themselves facing a new set of challenges.

The story is set against a backdrop of the historical and political events taking place during the first half of the 20th century including the horrors of Japan’s invasion of China and later the rise of communism. Pearl and May’s story is very sad, with one tragedy followed by another, and only a few moments of happiness, so this is not always an easy book to read. There are also some plot twists and one or two big secrets, though it’s not too hard to guess what these are before they’re revealed. But above all, this is a story about the bond between two sisters.

Pearl, born in the Year of the Dragon, is very protective of her younger Sheep sister, May, who Pearl believes is their parents’ favourite. Throughout the story it’s obvious that May and Pearl love each other but there’s also a lot of jealousy and resentment – something more serious than normal sibling rivalry – that threatens to damage their relationship. I found I didn’t actually like either of them, though this didn’t stop me from enjoying the book (in fact the only character I really did like was Sam, Pearl’s husband). As the first-person narrator of the novel, Pearl was the sister I naturally tended to have more sympathy for. May seemed very selfish and shallow to me, but as I learned more about her I started to understand what caused her to behave the way she did and I saw that the relationship between the two sisters was more complex than I’d thought. Both characters had good points and bad points and I found both of them frustrating at times!

The only problem I had with this book was that the ending was not very satisfactory. It was obviously intended to be left on a cliffhanger so that you would have to read the sequel to find out what happens next. The sequel, Dreams of Joy, is out now and I’m hoping to start reading it soon, but I was still disappointed that this book didn’t have a proper ending.

This is the second of Lisa See’s historical fiction novels I’ve read. The first was Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a story set in 19th century China, but I liked this one a lot more than Snow Flower. Have you read any of Lisa See’s books? Which ones have you enjoyed the most?

Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

This book was recommended to me after I read Wild Swans by Jung Chang earlier this year and as I had heard a lot of good things about it, I decided to give it a try.

Lily is a Chinese girl born in Hunan Province in 1823, the daughter of a poor farmer. When she is six years old, the local matchmaker has an exciting announcement to make: if Lily’s feet are bound properly they will be the perfect size and shape, allowing her to marry well and improve the fortunes of herself and her family.

As well as arranging marriages for young girls, another job of the professional matchmaker is to find them a laotong or ‘old same’ – a special friend whose personal circumstances match in a number of different ways (e.g. same birthday, same number of siblings). Snow Flower and the Secret Fan tells the story of the lifelong friendship between Lily and her ‘old same’ Snow Flower.

If you haven’t read this book yet, I should warn you that the chapter on footbinding goes into a lot of detail, describing exactly what it involves and how much suffering the girl is forced to endure – all because small feet were considered the ideal and a girl with large feet would be virtually unmarriageable. One of the worst things about the whole process in my opinion was that it was usually carried out by the child’s mother – I just can’t imagine a mother inflicting so much pain and suffering on her daughter and even risking the girl dying from infection. If you can manage to get through this chapter though, there are plenty of other Chinese customs and traditions to learn about.

For example, did you know that Chinese women had a secret language of their own known as nu shu? This came about because women were discouraged from learning standard Chinese writing, so invented their own writing system which they then tried to keep hidden from the men. Throughout the book, Lily and Snow Flower communicate by writing messages to each other on a silk fan, using nu shu.

I also found the custom of the laotong fascinating. Most young Chinese girls had a group of ‘sworn sisters’, who would be her closest friends only until the day she married. Lily, however, was chosen to have a laotong – a girl who would remain her best friend throughout her entire life.

I thought it was sad that women were considered to be worthless and their only value to society was as a potential mother of sons. If a woman only gave birth to girls she was no use to her family. Here Lily and Snow Flower are discussing the possibility that they will both give birth to daughters.

Snow Flower smoothed her hands over her belly and in a small voice reminded me that girls are but worthless branches unable to carry on their fathers’ lines.
“They will not be useless to us,” I said. “Could we not make a laotong match for them now – before they are born?”
“Lily, we are worthless,” Snow Flower sat up. I could see her face in the moonlight. “You know that, don’t you?”

While I wouldn’t say I loved this book, I did enjoy learning about a culture so completely different to my own and I would welcome any suggestions for more historical fiction novels set in China.