I had never heard of it, but when my book club chose The Island of Sea Women (2019) by Lisa See, I was excited to read it. The ones who had already read it mentioned that there was some very graphic violence, which is helpful to know if you prefer not to read that sort of thing. I’m glad my book club chose this historical novel. It was well-written and gave me a glimpse into a time and culture that I knew nothing about. Interestingly, I have read another very good book about the Japanese occupation of Korea, Pachinko, but this one felt very different.
The book takes place on the island of Jeju, just off Korea. The massive timeline follows two close friends, Mi-ja and Young-sook from the 1930’s and 40’s during the Japanese occupation of Korea. It continues through World War II, the Korean War, and up to current times. Young-sook has a hard life, but she’s part of a loving family. Her mother is in charge of their local Haenyeo divers’ group. The Haenyeo are courageous women who free dive in the ocean, gathering food to eat and sell. It’s only women who dive, stemming from some kind of tax law many years before, but it creates a small subversion of traditional gender roles. The men stay at home and take care of the children while the women provide for their family. However, women don’t have much power. It’s still only the boys who are sent to school.
Mi-ja is caught one day stealing food from Young-sook’s family garden. Mi-ja lives nearby with her aunt and uncle who mistreat her horribly. She is not considered part of the community because her father was Japanese, and there is strong community dislike for any “collaborators” with the Japanese occupiers. But Young-sook’s mother allows Mi-ja to work with them in the garden for food. She also hires Mi-ja to help out with the diving collective.
When they are old enough, both Young-sook and Mi-ja take their turn at becoming baby divers and learning the skills needed for the dangerous ocean. They grow in their skills and even travel to earn money for their families. When it is time for them to marry, Young-sook is married to an old friend of hers. Mi-ja is married to a rich man and moves to the city. The two are split up and don’t talk as much anymore.
After the war, the people of Jeju are excited about independence, but instead the United States takes over occupation of the island. The United States and Koreans in power view Jeju’s push for independence as pro-Communist and stamp down on them hard. There is incredible violence and destruction, tearing Young-sook and Mi-ja apart for good.
I really liked this book. I felt like I really grew with and understood Young-sook and Mi-ja. I loved learning about the extraordinary Haenyeo women. As someone who gets cold easily, I cannot even imagine spending so much time in frigid water–let alone holding my breath for that long! My one issue with the book was that it was obvious that See had done a ton of research while writing this book, but it seemed like she was intent on shoehorning all of that research into her novel whether it fit the story or not. Whenever something felt a little awkwardly placed or unbelievable that the main characters had heard or seen it, I found out later that it had actually occurred. It makes sense that See wanted to put all that incredible history into her book, but it sometimes took away from the story of Young-sook and Mi-ja.
You can find all my reviews on my blog.