From the book jacket:
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 is such a captivating and powerful story not only two friends, but women and their relationships as well. especially since it is based around true historical events. The detail that Lisa See goes into is, as always, remarkable and she really captures the horrific events is such a beautiful way.
What I especially liked about this book is the relationship between Young-sook and Mi-ja; to me, their relationship is similar to those that many women have: we’re inseparable but as we get older, our faith in one another is tested in a make-or-break fashion.
In my opinion, Young-sook and Mi-ja’s friendship was flawed. While it seems strong on the outside, Young-sook’s haenyeo upbringing blinded her to Mi-ja’s “Western” struggles as Mi-ja didn’t have the courage to speak up for herself. Still, their story grabbed me and I couldn’t help but want them to resolve their differences.
The Island of Sea Women opened my eyes to a part of Asian history that I had absolutely no knowledge of, and as I mentioned before, Lisa See tells its tale so wonderfully. I heart hurts for those who were impacted by the 4.3 Incident and I’m really interested in learning more about this island’s history overall.
Despite all of the tragedy within the storyline, it still absorbed me completely. I’d definitely recommend it as it introduces such a different lifestyle for women.
My rating: ★★★★½/5