The Island Of Sea Women by Lisa See

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Run, don’t walk, to get yourself a copy of Lisa See’s newest novel, The Island Of Sea Women.  This exquisite story brings together a breathtaking tale of friendship, a blunt look at Korean history, and an ode to the enduring power of women.  I loved this book so much that if I were a professor of Women’s Studies, it would be required reading.

The Island Of Sea Women revolves around best friends Young-sook and Mi-ja; both from the Korean island of Jeju.  Their story spans many decades, from the period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s, to WWII, to the Korean War…. right up to the year 2008.  The tale centers on the Haenyeo, the female Korean divers who plunge into deep waters to harvest food (mostly shellfish such as abalone and sea urchins), without the help of oxygen masks.  These remarkable women start diving when they’re very young, and the tradition continues until they retire at surprisingly old ages.

The majority of Jeju family incomes are provided by the Haenyeo, which largely make the society matriarchal.  Most often, the Haenyeo are the heads of their households, and the birth of girls is always the cause of much celebration.  This reversal of traditional gender roles was fascinating and wonderful, as the women dove for 7+ hours a day, while their husbands stayed home to watch the children.  The Haenyeo were tireless, determined, and spiritual.  Every woman in this novel is extraordinary in her own right, and you’ll feel very close to them as the pages turn.

While Young-sook and Mi-ja’s backgrounds were startlingly different, they became fast friends when they were children, and they were inseparable for most of their young lives.  Eventually, they married and had children of their own, until an unspeakable tragedy tore them apart.  It’s this break in friendship that propels the plot, as you wonder how (if at all), it can be repaired.  The book wavers back and forth between Young-sook’s early life, and her life as a grandmother (who still dives).  Like the other people in the book, Young-sook becomes more fascinating and complex as the decades pass.  The character development here leaves no stone unturned.

As the story progresses, you will receive a very thorough (and harsh) education of South Korean history.  I often found myself putting the book down and researching events, such as their Japanese occupation, the 4.3 Incident, South Korea during the Cold War, and more.  Jeju’s history is littered with violence and pain, and there were some scenes in the book that were almost impossible to read.  You’ll wonder how these women could possibly continue. 

But they do.  With grace, faith, respect for one another and unparalleled inner strength.  I adored them.

Lisa See pulls no punches with this story, and be warned: if you enter the world of the Sea Women, you will not emerge unscathed.  I was a mess when I finished this novel, and I should note that books rarely, if ever, make me cry.  Not this time.  Pass the tissues. 

Heartfelt congratulations to Lisa See for one of the best books I’ve read this year.  I miss the women of this novel terribly and know in my heart that I’ll read it again one day, so I can see these friends once more.  They were beautiful in every way.