The Island of Sea Women

Review From User :

Update: Happy Publication Day! (Today, March 5th, 2019)

Haenyeo is the Korean name for the sea women who, through careful husbandry, harvest the sea through various seasons of production and restoration. On Jeju Island, south of mainland Korea, they called themselves jamsu, jamnyeo, or jomnyeo, which are all Jeju words. The haenyeo culture is characterized as matrifocal; that is, focused on females. They did all the difficult and dangerous work in their families and had to be in top physical form to do so, beginning their training when young: to hold their breath, develop strong, supple muscles, and expand their instincts for danger and for spotting their underwater harvests.

I know from reading the author's note how much research was involved in this story. Before I even read how this book came about, the feeling I had was of Lisa See doing her always-exceptional historical and current research, and visiting the places she wrote about in person, but also listening to the stories of various people who remembered the period of time covered in this novel. Then, taking all of the history and the stories and stirring them with her imagination, Lisa See wove this fascinating, tragic, and utterly absorbing story.

And on the tides of trust in this author, and with a few deep breaths, I dove into this story, and I dove deep.

We are drawn into the story of Mi-ja and Young-sook who first met when they were seven years old and grew to be heart friends, sharing their deepest held secrets, their love of diving, and many adventures, including going to Russia as teenagers to dive in freezing cold waters for extra money to bring home for their families. When they are 21, a rift occurs and although they continue to be buoyed by their loving bond, the seeds of suspicion and distrust are planted.

Through the eyes, hearts, and experiences of two young girls who mature and grow into women with their own families, we are transported seamlessly between the past when they were younger, through and into a time 70 years onward. The culture and history of Jeju Island is both tragic and triumphant.

Tragic, because there was always some government somewhere wanting to take control of the Island due to its strategic military location. Decades of living in fear, of poverty, restrictions, and wars would surely wear down any group of people. Triumphant because, like the inspiring haenyeo with their amazing abilities, again and again these Island people propelled themselves from the depths and to the surface.

I loved everything about this novel: the story, the characters, the setting, and the many, many things I learned. There are heart-rending and catastrophic events in this story, and there were several times when I had to pause in my reading to absorb the shock of what these characters that I grew to love went through. At the same time, it is a testament and tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that will stay within my heart for always.

With gratitude to Simon and Schuster Canada, Scribner and NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review an ARC of this novel, and to the author, Lisa See: the only author who could have written this story. Its publication date is March 05, 2019.


A new novel from Lisa See, the New York Times bestselling author of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, about female friendship and family secrets on a small Korean island.
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Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends that come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility but also danger.

Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook’s differences are impossible to ignore. The Island of Sea Women is an epoch set over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War and its aftermath, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, and she will forever be marked by this association. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that after surviving hundreds of dives and developing the closest of bonds, forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.

This beautiful, thoughtful novel illuminates a world turned upside down, one where the women are in charge, engaging in dangerous physical work, and the men take care of the children. A classic Lisa See story – one of women’s friendships and the larger forces that shape them – The Island of Sea Women introduces readers to the fierce and unforgettable female divers of Jeju Island and the dramatic history that shaped their lives.

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