The Island of Sea Womenby Published 05 Mar 2019
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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.
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.
"The Island of Sea Women" Reviews
Update: Happy Publication Day! (Today, March 5th, 2019)
Haenyeo is the Japanese 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.
“As the Korean saying goes, *Haenyos* do the work of the dead in the land of the living”.
“Every woman who enters the sea carries a coffin on her back. In this world, the undersea world, we tow the burdens of a hard life”.
Women harvest together, sort together, and sell together. The sea itself is communal.
With no breathing equipment, the deep-sea diving Korean women (*Haenyos*), hold their breath for two minutes, diving 65 feet deep to harvest seafood: abalone, shellfish, sea urchins, octopus, conches, sea slugs, sea cucumbers, oysters, and squid.
Years ago, Haenyos officially retired at age 55. Today, it’s hard to find Haenyos under the age off 55.
In recent years, their numbers are decreasing dramatically. It’s estimated that the haenyo will be gone in twenty years unless more women step forward.
Diving as these women do can be very dangerous. Strokes are common with years of diving.
Dr Shin, ( a minor character), says: “You Haenyo learn from your mothers and grandmothers, but what they taught you is the worst thing you can do. All those short breaths, followed by a deep dive, where you hold your breath the entire time, and then the quick rise to the surface. And then you do it again and again and again? It’s terrible and very dangerous”.
Air-Bubbles can get into the women’s veins and lungs and cause brain damage.
One of the characters, *Yu-ri* - did have an accident. “Yu-ri went into the sea one person, and came out another”.
Another character died in the sea. Two tragedies early in the storytelling....
Yet...Haenyeo - female divers in the Korean Province of *Jeju*, are known for their strength, their independent spirit, their iron will and determination. Their identity was strongly associated with diving. The dangers didn’t influence their thinking. The sea was their life!
Originally, diving was an exclusively male profession. By the 18th century, women divers outnumbered the male divers.
Gender roles were reversed. Since women divers were the primary breadwinners - their husbands took care of the domestic needs: he looked after children, did the shopping, and cooked the meals.
“Soup with titlefish, White radish, and seaweed, a bowl of seasoned bracken, turnip and green onion buckwheat pancakes”.
Or....Black pig grilled with soy paste and cabbage kimchi.
Or.....Sea urchin soup. .....etc.
The HISTORICAL ‘FACTS’ were FASCINATING to me. I was naturally curious about the extraordinary diving women - (their culture, their relationships with their mother’s, grandmothers, husbands, and their respect for the sea), the island itself: *Jetju* - the history between the Japanese and Koreans - and the horrific Bukchon Massacre.
Lisa Sea brought awareness to devastating historical events that were essentially kept secret for years - Japanese rule, resistance, and retaliation. A riot spread like a forest fire.....
In the same way author Tatiana de Rosnay - in “Sara’s Key”, exposed secrets that the French had hidden ( tried to keep secret), - that France participated in roundups - French police knowingly sent Jews to the gas chambers to Auschwitz. .....
Lisa Sea exposed a very dark time in Jeju’s history - (tried to keep secret).
American soldiers discovered 97 bodies that were killed and buried by the government. They also encountered police who were executing 76 villagers. Between 14,000, and 30,000, people died as a result of the rebellion.
The FICTIONAL STORY .....centered around a friendship between two girls ....both Haenyo divers - their coming of age together - with their trials and tribulations started out interesting. ( both from very different backgrounds: both independently interesting females), but didn’t always hold my interest. I felt ‘their’ story was ‘literary-ordinary’. It wasn’t awful....but ‘common’ storytelling.
I have no idea - how history and fiction work together. I read a great quote from another book reviewer not long ago: she enjoyed the facts of the story - the fiction - and not knowing the difference between either.
I thought that was GREAT insight.... with an overall great reading experience.
For me - I ‘was’ aware of what was FACT and what was FICTION.
I often don’t care if the history is perfect. If I’m enjoying the story and the characters, I’m simply enjoying the book.... but this time the HISTORY was my favorite.
I found the history fascinating, and interesting, .....
The Haenyos are BEAUTIFUL WOMEN - inside and out......with AMAZING PHOTOS that can be found online. The older women are women, I would enjoy sitting with sharing tea.....( get to know them more).
The women’s languages interested me - their dispositions - work ethics- etc.
“ The Villiage of Widows”.....was a fascinating chapter in this book.
I wanted to know more about role of the village leaders, their resistance to traditional education, ( and why THE SEA trumped everything else in their lives).....when often they were left with physical pain from decades of the water pressure....to their ears, joints - headaches and even painful hips from the “Tewak” they carried.
A Tewak is a flotation device about the size of a basketball that sits at the surface of the water with a net hanging beneath it to catch the harvest. Its HUGE ....( see photos online)
I liked learning about a vocal practice the women did called “Sumbisori”. It’s a breathing technique used by whales and seals. The diving women practiced too as it allowed them to dive deeper below sea level.
I was also interested in political upheavals. They were gut wrenching: I learned a lot.
My only - ‘slight’ - criticism was the fictional story. It was ‘fair’ for me. Good...just not over-the-top extraordinary. Doesn’t really matter - as I got what I wanted from this book - An awakening to new history .... which I’ll still be interested in - years from now. Lisa Sea gave me ( and I believed), other readers a great gift with “The Island of Sea Women”.
I also agree with the reader who said.....”I’d read the phone book if Lisa Sea wrote it”.
Sincere thanks to Scriber Publishing, Netgalley, and Lisa Sea
photo credit: https://www.deepblu.com/mag/index.php...
Full of history, culture and female collectivity, The Island of Sea Women spans generations while showcasing the women who put their lives at risk for tradition.
Author Lisa See explores the haenyeo (Korean for 'sea women'), female freedivers of the South Korean island of Jeju, who have trained their bodies to withstand the extremes of the surrounding waters to gather marine life from the ocean's floor. But their physical adaptability appears to be part metaphor for the very necessary emotional resilience that these characters' lives will require of them. Love, loss, friendship, betrayal, colonization and massacre... the smiles and tragedies ride the waves hand in hand, and the support of a true sisterhood ensures no one drowns in their suffering.
I found this novel absolutely fascinating as I learned more about this women-focused society I had only heard about a few times prior. The communal spirit of this culture was so inspiring. But this story mirrors the depths of the sea as it alternates between present day (2008) and past (1938-1975), showing the evolution of relationships, suffering and cultural generation gaps that transition traditions into past tense. Please know this story is absolutely heartbreaking in its journey, and the reader will feel it all. There is raw anger, injustice, sorrow, but also hope. As the story of these women teaches readers about sacrifice, it also teaches that it is never too late to forgive, and there is no better lesson to learn.
My favorite quote:
“Children are hope and joy. On land, you will be a mother. In the sea, you can be a grieving widow. Your tears will be added to the oceans of salty tears that wash in great waves across our planet. This I know. If you try to live, you can live on well.”
Audiobook narrated by the talented Jennifer Lim.
In this well researched, illuminating novel exploring the haenyeo culture of Jeju Island in Korea, that of the the titular sea women, Lisa See has opened up a portal to a time and place far removed from my Western life. The reader sees events through the eyes of Young-Sook from her childhood and beginning as a “baby diver” during the years of Japanese occupation, through World War Two, post war occupation by the U.S. military and virulent anti-communist activity, and on to the end of the century.
This book shows some of the major benefits of well written historical fiction: it opens up a previously unknown culture, exploring actual historical events through the careful use of well defined characters.
.....to be continued...
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.
One of the things I enjoy most about historical fiction is learning something new that I never knew before. I've been to Korea twice this year in my reading--the first being Pachinko which dealt with the prejudice of the Japanese towards Koreans.
This is a story of friendship and forgiveness. It is set on the island of Jeju and tells the story of the haenyeo--the women of the island who dive into the sea to harvest its rich abundance.
The book begins in 2008 and centers on Young-sook, a famous granny diver and cultural treasure. She thinks: "We are but living myths, and soon we will be gone."
A family of Americans want to discuss the past with her, asking if she remembers a young woman in their photos. Young-sook denies this and does everything she can to avoid them.
These parts are told in third person but when she remembers the past, the story switches to first person pov, beginning in April of 1938. Korea has been colonized by Japan for many years at this point and the islanders long to be free.
Jeju of the past was a matrifocal culture--a society focused on the women sea divers. They support their families by this work while their husbands stay home with the children and cook dinner. Young-sook's mother is the head of their diving collective of thirty women from their neighborhood of Hado and is responsible for everyone's safe return to shore.
Young-sook becomes close friends with Mi-ja, an orphan girl whose father was labelled a Japanese collaborator, which causes her to be looked down upon. The two girls learn to dive together and are partners. Over the years, they swear they will always be best friends...but something horrible does eventually come between them. Many years later, Young-sook comes to the realization that "to understand is to forgive."
Beautifully written, deeply felt--this new book from Lisa See is a gem! Highly recommend.
Many thanks to the publisher for providing me with an arc via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.