“The Island of Sea Women” by Lisa See

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Thanks to Simon and Schuster and NetGalley for providing me with an Advance Review Copy in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve read a number of Lisa See’s books in the past so was excited to see that she has written a new novel. This story follows Young-Sook and Mi-Ja, two Haenyeo, Korean women who harvest the sea floor by free diving. I was familiar with real life Haenyeo stories beforehand and it was great to see a novel written about these fascinating women. The book is written from Young-Sook’s perspective and follows her life as a young girl in the 1940s through to 2008. The book flashes back and forward through time to allow the mysteries of the past to unfold. 

The society on Jeju island, where the story takes place, is unusual in that women go out to do the difficult, often dangerous work and the men stay home to cook, clean and look after the children. Throughout the book we can see many instances of what we may see as typical ‘women’s work’ being undertaken by men and vice versa. One quote that particularly tickled me was:

“A woman is not meant for the household!” 

These are the realities of life on Jeju and it makes for fascinating and thought-provoking reading. All too often we are led to think that it is in a woman’s innate make-up to be best suited to looking after children whereas men are best suited to provide and work, and yet, here is a society where the opposite is true.  

The heart of the novel is Young-Sook and Mi-Ja’s friendship and the trials and tribulations they experience throughout their lives. From the start they are drawn together despite their differences, Young-Sook is the daughter of the leader of the diving collective, Mi-Ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator. Young-Sook’s mother extends the hand of kindness to Mi-Ja and becomes a mother figure to her. From then on Young-Sook and Mi-Ja are inseparable. The shadow of the Japanese occupation looms large and Mi-Ja, as the daughter of a collaborator, is an outcast until her friendship with Young-Sook brings her into the fold.  

The book covers the time period of World War 2 through to the Korean War and its aftermath. The horrors and inhumanity of war are explored in unflinching detail. The characters suffer through grief and loss and come to understand the difficulty of, but the need for, forgiveness.  

Motherhood is another key theme running through the story, the love between generations and the relationships between women are felt through the vivid cast of characters. The dynamic of a working mother and the sacrifices the Haenyeo women make to provide for their family is surprisingly similar to the experiences of working women today:

“Every woman must leave her children to work, and every mother suffers, but we do it”

As a working mother herself who feels often feels guilty, this really resonated with me. 

The lure of the sea and its wonders are tangible throughout the novel. I love books about the sea, so I’m probably biased, but I really felt like I was under the waves with Young-Sook as she explored the underwater world and its treasures and dangers -the sea giveth and the sea taketh away. The customs and traditions of the Haenyeo women were also explored and tied into the lives of the characters. 

I really didn’t want this book to end and I devoured it in a day. See has created a memorable cast of characters that will stay with me for a long time. Considering the time period and events this book covers, it is not always an easy read, but it still remains a beautiful account of female friendship, love, loss and the enduring relationships between women. 

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