By Lisa See
Published March 2019 by Scribner
Source: Borrowed from Library
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.
This book was absolutely fantastic and a fascinating read! It was a perfect example of why I love historical fiction. Before reading this book I knew very little details about Korean history, particularly the Korean perspective of the Korean War, and had never heard of the haenyeo. I was drawn into the story from the first chapter and immediately connected to the characters. It was such a beautiful, emotional story of generations of strong women providing for their families by harvesting food from the sea.
The story spanned decades and included World War II, the Korean War, and its aftermath. I got so emotionally attached to these characters and shared in their struggle and grief through these difficult times. The book begins in 2008, and it is clear Young-sook and Mi-ja were once best friends but now estranged, and you don't understand why. The book then jumps back into their early years as divers back in the 1930's ("baby-divers") and follows their relationship throughout their lives. As history unravels and their differences complicate their lives, you begin to understand why Young-sook reacts to Mi-ja's family the way she does.
This book beautifully explores female friendships and family relationships, as well as Korean culture and history in a way you won't forget. This is definitely one of my top reads of the year so far. Lisa see clearly did her research and crafted a brilliant, emotional, and thought provoking read. Five stars!