The Island of the Sea Women by Lisa See is a historical novel about Young-sook, a haenyo, who lives on the Korean island of Jeju. Haenyo are Korean women who deep-sea dive without any equipment to harvest seafood. These daring women can hold their breath for two minutes, diving over 65 feet deep with no equipment, and in very frigid waters. On Jeju, the society is matriarchal with the women going out to fish while the husbands tend the children and sit under trees and gossip.
The novel starts in 2008, with Young-sook picking seaweed on the beach. She is approached by an American family asking if she is Young-sook and if so, did she know Mi-ja, their grandmother and great-grandmother. Young-sook denies knowing the woman who had once been her dearest friend and diving partner. Over the next few days, Mi-ja’s great-granddaughter is persistent in talking to Young-sook. At the end of the novel, there is a twist to the story.
Mi-ja was is the orphaned daughter of a Japanese collaborator. Her mother died during childbirth. She lives with her cruel aunt and uncle in a nearby village. Despite their different backgrounds, Mi-ja and Young-sook become inseparable friends. Young-sook’s mother is the leader of the village haenyo collective, and she trains Young-sook and Mi-ja to dive. The friendship between Young-sook and Mi-ja survives the Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, and World War II. When a horrible event occurs during the Jeju revolt on April 3, 1948, (known as “4.3” by Koreans) the friendship between Young-sook and Mi-ja shatters. Sixty years later, Young-sook still has not forgiven Mi-ja.
This is a book about friendship, family, sisterhood, and motherly love. It is a fascinating study of the haenyo. Surprisingly to me, it is also about the horrors of living in an occupied country with starvation, war, mass killings, and brutality. Some parts of the book were disturbing to read.
4-Stars. Book club recommended.