The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See (Historical Novel, 2019).
An award-winning author of both Asia-focused history and best-selling fiction, Lisa See explores the once interconnected then diverging lives of a pair of free-diving women from the Korean island of Jeju. In the process, we experience the island’s unique culture and often painful histories, both of the individual characters, the island in particular and Korea as a whole.
Jeju has a long tradition, today fading away, of women who dived in the relatively shallow coastal waters without any breathing equipment or even insulated wet-suits. They harvested the sea for all manner of edible plants and animals, and in the process held a degree of economic and social independence rare among women in Asia–or in fact the world over. Respected for their highly developed skills, including the breath-holding feats of endurance that from the 1960s on were the subject of repeated medical research, they in many ways were the heads of their families. In a reverse of ‘traditional’ models, it was their husbands who stayed at home and had primary child-rearing responsibilities, while the women were what we’d call the family breadwinners.
The book opens in 2008, as the American-raised grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Mi-ja pay a visit to the island. They want to make contact with the aged Young-sook, once her dearest friend but who feels betrayed by Mi-ja.
Chapter 2 flashes back to the 1930s, when Young-sock and Mi-ja were children and the Japanese Empire ruled over Korea with iron-fisted ruthlessness.
From there on, chapters alternate between the 21st century visitors’ attempt to emotionally reach Young-sook and repair the legacy of bitterness, and the unfolding history of the island (mostly through Young-sook’s eyes).
There is danger, tragedy and joy, deep friendship and corrosive guilt–all brought vividly to life. You also get to experience the unique culture and worldview of these women in detail. We witness culture clashes between the locals and Japanese, American and, yes, Korean Mainlanders who just don’t ‘get’ the Jeju way of life. It’s a thoroughly involving, dramatic and satisfying novel.
For such an exotic location, fairly little-known to much of the outside world, this is the 2nd novel I’ve read in less than 2 years about Jeju, its free-divers and its tortured history. Back in April 2018 I read (and reviewed) White Chrysanthemums, quite a good debut novel by Mary Lynn Brecht.
Covering much the same ground and time period, the more experienced See delves far deeper than Brecht into the culture of the place. This is what elevates The Island of Sea Women to the status of a great book, while the earlier effort is ‘merely’ very good.