The Island of Sea Women – Lisa See

The Island of Sea Women

Set on the Korean island of Jeju, The Island of Sea Women follows Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls from very different backgrounds, as they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective. Over many decades—through the Japanese colonialism of the 1930s and 1940s, World War II, the Korean War, and the era of cellphones and wet suits for the women divers—Mi-ja and Young-sook develop the closest of bonds. Nevertheless, their differences are impossible to ignore: Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, forever marking her, and Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers. After hundreds of dives and years of friendship, forces outside their control will push their relationship to the breaking point.

This beautiful, thoughtful novel illuminates a unique and unforgettable culture, 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 female divers of Jeju Island and the dramatic history that shaped their lives.

My review

This is a story of the bond between two friends, Young-Sook and Mi-Ja. They are from two vastly different backgrounds, yet both are haenyeo (women divers). The lives and work of haenyeo arThe story follows the girl’s lives as they grow up together, travel, marry and have children. They live on the island of Jeju, South Korea, once a safe and beautiful home that is struck by tragedy. The two women experience love, loss, hurt, tragedy, war and personal struggles.

As soon as I started reading this novel I knew I had in my hands a novel of great importance. Lisa See has a way of making her characters and their world, part of the reader’s world, through her vivid descriptions. Throughout the entire novel I was on the edge of my seat, wanting to follow their lives and find out what would be next for them. I hoped for peace for them. I hoped they would not have any more loss. Both women deal with the horrors of war and lose part of what is most important; family.

Lisa See has researched the issues and historical events herein thoroughly. I learnt a lot. I have not studied the Korean war in depth and my eyes were opened to the horrors of it. I also felt that her personal interactions with those on Jeju island has made this novel the novel it is, a heartbreaking, generational story that is authentic in culture and placese. I felt I was on the island of Jeju, feeling the freedom of the sea, as the haenyeo completed each dive.

Lisa See has written a novel that I will always remember. Her writing is beautiful and The Island of Sea Women is a very clever piece of historical fiction. I hope to read more of Lisa See’s writing. Although set in a world away from myself, the messages ring true. Women are powerful and strong. A mother’s love for her child is everything to her. ‘A good woman is a good mother.’ This is an unfortgetable novel that will stay in my heart.


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