The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See: A review

I greatly enjoyed Lisa See's last novel, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, and had looked forward to reading her latest one about the female deep sea divers on the Korean island of Jeju. I was not disappointed.

Much as she did with the previous novel where she gave us a window on the lives of the Akha hill tribe and the tea trade in Yunnan province through the relationship of a mother and daughter, in this book, we get to know the society of the haenyeo (women divers) through the lives of two girls who become friends and who are meant to be lifelong friends. Something happens along the way to sunder that friendship but the lives of the two remain connected in unbreakable ways.

The time period covered by this historical novel is one of great violence and upheaval in Korea and on Jeju. It begins in the late 1930s when Jeju is under Japanese control. It is a brutal occupation and the people of Jeju suffer greatly. Then comes World War II. At the end of the war, the island comes under American control, but that control could hardly be called benevolent. There is civil unrest as warring factions fight for control and atrocities are visited on the population, while the Americans essentially take a hands-off approach. Then comes the Korean War. Through it all, privation is the norm for the island's people, but through it all, they somehow manage to survive and the divers keep diving. The novel takes us all the way forward to 2008 and a new era of diving when the haenyeo use wetsuits and modern equipment.

We learn that the haenyeo society of the island is matrifocal. The women do the hard and dangerous work of diving and bring home the money, while the men stay home and take care of the children and the house, do the cooking and cleaning. The women also grow gardens to supplement the family diet, their main crop being sweet potatoes. 

Young-sook is a young girl when we meet her in the 1930s. She is the daughter of the respected head of a group of haenyeo divers and she is eager to begin her own career as a diver. Mi-ja is of the same age but from a very different background. She had lived with her father in Jeju City, a more urban setting. Her mother was dead. Her father was reviled as a Japanese collaborator. Then she lost her father too and was forced to come and live with an uncle and aunt in the village. These people treated her horribly and she never had enough to eat. One day as she was scrounging for food, she came in contact with Young-sook and her mother. The mother was aware of her background and took pity on the child, giving her menial tasks for which she would pay her in food. Thus, Young-sook and Mi-ja were thrown together and they became bonded in friendship.

Both the girls were trained as divers and began going out with the women. In time, they even went to other locations on "leaving-home water-work," aka contract diving jobs, in places like China, Japan, and finally Vladivostok. When the time came for them to marry, their families arranged marriages for them. Mi-ja's marriage was to a handsome young man whom Young-sook had a crush on. This was the beginning of their estrangement. Young-sook's marriage was to a local teacher, a man she had known since childhood, and though she was at first disappointed, she quickly learned to love her husband and they had a very successful marriage. Mi-ja, not so much.

The story is told through these two families, from Young-sook's point of view, and it seems at times like a litany of constant tragedies. But through it all, there is the sea and the Young-sook's love and respect for that dangerous environment.
“The sea is better than a mother. You can love your mother, and she still might leave you. You can love or hate the sea, but it will always be there. Forever. The sea has been the center of her life. It has nurtured her and stolen from her, but it has never left.” 

The world events that are the background to this story are so momentous and traumatic that it sometimes seems that the focus on the friendship is not large enough to contain them. Historical fiction, of course, almost by its nature has a political aspect to it and the politics of the period covered here are still reverberating on the Korean peninsula. But the lives of Young-sook and Mi-ja at least give us an appreciation for what the people of this region have endured and perhaps allow us to understand a little better what is happening there today.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


  1. I am looking forward to this one. I suspect one of my reading groups will choose it since we always read her books. After Pachinko I am ready for another look at Korea and Lisa See has not let me down yet.

    1. This one won't let you down either. It is quite fascinating.

  2. This sounds good. I really like Lisa See.

    1. She is quite an amazing writer. Thanks for dropping by, Jill.


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