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.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Lisa See’s historical novels give us fascinating glimpses into different Asian cultures, and The Island of Sea Women offers one of her most compelling stories. In the 1930s on the remote Korean island of Jeju, seven-year-olds Young-sook and Mi-ja are drawn into the community of haenyo, or “sea women,” whose diving skills allow them to harvest the ocean’s bounty. Over the decades, their sisterly bond is repeatedly tested as Jeju’s matriarchal culture is buffeted by foreign occupiers and brutal dictators. See’s period detail is fascinating, but her characters’ complex emotions were what kept us transfixed.
See (The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane) once again explores how culture survives and morphs in this story of a real-life Korean female diving collective. Young-Sook and Mi-Ja meet as young girls in 1939 in Hado, a village on the island of Jeju, where traditionally the women earn a living while their husbands care for the children and home. The two girls begin training as haenyeo, divers who harvest oysters, sea slugs, and octopi from the sea. But after WWII when American occupation of southern Korea begins, the two grow apart. While Young-Sook struggles to make ends meet for her family, Mi-Ja's husband's role in the government spares her the economic suffering endured by most of the country. But after Mi-Ja's family betrays Young-Sook, Young-Sook struggles for decades to reconcile her anger with fond memories of her friend, even after their families cross paths again. Jumping between the WWII era and 2008, See perceptively depicts challenges faced by Koreans over the course of the 20th century, particularly homing in on the ways the haenyeo have struggled to maintain their way of life. Exposing the depths of human cruelty and resilience, See's lush tale is a wonderful ode to a truly singular group of women.
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Lisa See is one of my favorite authors and I have loved all of her books, but this is definitely my favorite! So beautifully written and an amazing journey through time and history.