If you love stories of strong, fearless women, their relationships to each other and family, the depiction of their path, stumbling blocks and successes, you will love this book. Lisa See gives us wonderful characters living amid a terrible yet fascinating history.
The Island of Sea Women is as exquisite in its rendering as it is heartbreaking in its storyline. Set over the course of seven decades it follows the lives of Young-sook and Mi-ja, best friends from Jeju, an island province of South Korea. Young-sook’s future as a haenyeo, a member of her area’s diving collective is guaranteed by her lineage. Mi-ja on the other hand is the orphaned daughter of a Japanese collaborator (Jeju was occupied by Japan for much of the beginning of the Twentieth Century) and as such tainted by default and ostracised by the village.
They meet as children when of course neither status nor heritage matters. Thanks to Young-sook’s mother being chief of their collective Mi-ja is granted an opportunity to dive and the other haenyeo have no choice but to accept it. Jeju’s matrifocal culture is steeped in traditions and beliefs. The depiction of customs and ceremonies utterly enthralled me and led me to marvel at the massive differences in cultures and yet also think about the common thread linking so many women – that of family and motherhood.
I quickly became attached to both Young-sook and Mi-ja, so different but so incredibly dedicated to one another. The girls live in a time of colossal change, they are fated to navigate life against the backdrop of horrifying events as the Second World War and its aftermath rages close by and rends the region apart. The milestones of life – marriage, babies, work, death of loved ones take place in spite of the upheavals but are by no means unaffected.
You will cry and feel heartsore. You will grit your teeth and knit your brows as you keep pace with Young-sook and Mi-ja. You will will them on. You will find yourself researching the history, in awe of the facts and of your ignorance. You will put a visit to Jeju on your bucket list. You will miss the book once you read the final page.
This makes me so happy that more people read and learned something about Korea. Even as a Korean-American, my knowledge of Jeju Island was pretty limited. While I still lots to learn, this novel was definitely a good starting point! 🙂