The Island of Sea Women, by Lisa See
Published by Scribner, 5th March 2019
Genres: Historical fiction, war, Asian literature
Format: Kindle eBook
On the small Korean island of Jeju, “typical” society has been turned on its head, as the women play the most important roles. They work outside the home, providing for their families, whilst the men mostly remain at home and care for the children. In particular, Jeju is known for its high-ranking and well-respected sea women, known as haenyeo; free divers who harvest the “wet fields” of the sea.
Young-sook and her best friend Mi-ja are training as “baby divers”, learning from the previous generations of sea women and preparing to join the diving collective. Working in the sea is dangerous, however, and they must always have their wits about them and look out for one another. When war and rebellion break out on the island, these bonds of female friendship and family will be tested as never before.
This was such an interesting book and shed light on yet another aspect of history which I knew nothing about.
In the years after World War 2, the Korean government conducted an anti-communist campaign on the island of Jeju. Ultimately, up to 25% of the island’s population was killed and another 40,000 people fled to Japan to seek refuge. In the following decades, strict punishments were exacted in order to suppress any memory of the atrocities committed on Jeju. The Korean government only recently accepted responsibility and apologised, but no reparations were made at the time.
Another interesting aspect of this story is the culture of the female diving collectives on Jeju and the vital role they played in supporting not only their families but also the economy of the island. It is incredible to think that these women would dive in the ocean in the middle of winter wearing only cotton bathing suits! Only recently have the haenyeo started wearing wetsuits, allowing them to dive for longer periods at a time.
I love a book which features strong women and the strong bonds of female friendship, and this one has all of that and more. The diving collectives are made up of so many generations of women and there is a strict hierarchy. The women all share their knowledge and experience, respect one another and form strong bonds. This concept of a semi-matriarchal society is fascinating.
I also really enjoyed the changing timelines throughout the book. The story switches between past and present, as an elderly Young-sook reflects on her past, whilst continuing her work as a hanyeo, but also still struggling to come to terms with everything that happened all those years ago.
This is a beautifully written book, full of rich historical fact and well-developed characters. I would highly recommend it to any fans of historical fiction.
My rating: 4/5