Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, especially when it teaches me about a piece of history or culture that was previously unknown to me. Pair that with beautiful writing, strong female characters, and a moving story, and you have a 5-star novel.
The Island of Sea Women tells the story of two girls, Young-sook and Mi-ja, from the South Korean island of Jeju. Mi-ja is an orphan living with her aunt and uncle and, because her father allegedly collaborated with the Japanese, is an outcast in the community. Young-sook’s mother is the leader of the local diving collective known as haenyo, a group of women who free-dive in the waters around the island, collecting abalone, octopuses, sea urchins, and other ocean delicacies that they sell to support their families. When a hungry Mi-ja is caught trying to steal food from her family’s land, Young-sook’s mother takes the orphan under her wing and brings her into the diving collective, beginning a life-long friendship between the girls. As narrator, Young-sook observes, “When Mi-ja and I first met, we were such opposites. I was like the rocks of our island–jagged, rough, all edges, but useful and no-nonsense. She was like clouds–drifting, melting, impossible to catch or fully understand. . . . We could not have been more different, and yet we were very close.”
The novel spans almost 80 years, from the time the girls meet in the 1930s up to 2008, when the few remaining haenyo have become a curiosity for tourists. It traces Young-sook’s and Mi-ja’s lives as they unfold against the backdrop of Japanese occupation, World War II, American occupation, the rise of insurgents in the late 1940s, and the Korean War. Each of these eras affects the young women and threatens their way of life, testing the strength of their relationship.
I love so many things about this novel. First, the history and culture of the haenyo is fascinating, and something I had never read about before. Their society is matriarchal, with the women supporting their families while the husbands stay home and care for the children (except when the babies are brought to the shore for mothers to nurse between dives). This leads to some funny, gender-defying passages, where the women complain about the men sitting at home while they are out working:
“How can a man enjoy a meal when he contributes so little?”
“Let’s not be so hard on our men,” Mother cautioned, bouncing my brother on her lap. “They take care of our children when we’re underwater. They make dinner for us. They wash our clothes.”
“And they always ask us for money–“
The women roared with laughter.
These women are fierce, braving freezing cold water with little in the way of protective clothing, risking their lives day in and day out (they dive without oxygen tanks, so mistakes can be fatal). At the same time, they are at the mercy of the politics of men, as each regime change poses new threats. In the early years of Young-sook’s and Mi-ja’s marriages, they live through the terror of what became known as the 4-3 incident, in which, over the course of 13 months, authorities executed tens of thousands of civilians in an effort to squelch insurrectionists (communists or protesters, depending on your point of view). This is another piece of history about which I was woefully ignorant before reading this novel, and the complicity of the United States in the horrors that occurred left me bitter. The novel explores the duality of power that the female characters experience: they yearn for daughters who can learn to dive to help support the family, but they also need sons to care for them in the afterlife; they supply their families with sustenance, yet they can be forced into abusive marriages. The complexity of human relationships is reflected in the complexity of the sea. “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.”
The Island of Sea Women does everything historical fiction should do. It brings a piece of under-appreciated history and culture to life through a compelling tale of friendship and perseverance. Much of the novel is heartbreaking, and if you are unfamiliar with the history of Jeju, prepare to be infuriated. Yet the writing is so beautiful and the story so compelling, I can’t recommend this novel enough.
For more information about haenyo, read this wonderful 2017 article.