20 December 2023

Review: The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See book cover

* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

After reading Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See earlier this year and identifying it as a real contender for my Top 5 list, I was lucky enough to receive two of the author's backlist titles for review, the first being The Island of Sea Women.

Set on Jeju Island in Korea from 1938 - 1975, the novel covers the events through the occupation by the Japanese, the Korean War and eventual establishment of North Korea and South Korea.

Our main character is Young-sook and the book follows her life in a dual timeline beginning with her childhood years growing up and learning how to do water work with her best friend Mi-ja. A small part of the book takes place in 2008 and provides the contemporary timeline.

Starting with little to no knowledge about Jeju Island, I was interested to learn about the matriarchal society of the haenyeo, where the women divers support their families by diving for various items - like mollusks, octopus, seaweed - to sell and eat. In contrast to the west, the matriarch is the head of the family and the father looks after the children at home while women divers go to work in the water fields or dry fields depending on the season.

Despite this interest, much of the content includes the conflicts and associated atrocities during this period. I found the unrelenting nature hard going at times and I needed to take a break part way through the book.
"We stayed alert for Japanese soldiers. Korea had now been a Japanese colony for twenty-eight years. We hated the Japanese, and they hated us. They were cruel. They stole food. Inland, they rustled livestock. They took and took and took. They'd killed Grandmother's parents, and she called them chokpari - cloven-footed ones." Page 13
I'm used to reading historical fiction where an heir is needed to secure a family legacy or royal line, but in this culture, a son is valued because they can perform ancestor worship when you die. Far from a son being required for reasons of succession, female babies are prized for their income earning abilities and male babies are celebrated as they represent a comfortable afterlife.

In the words of one of the characters:
"You are nothing but someone's servant if you don't have a son who can perform ancestor worship for you one day." Page 61
The political situation and escalation of violence with accompanying poverty and starvation is interpreted through the eyes of the haenyeo, and it was often a helpless situation for Young-sook and her family.
"This meant - although none of us understood the practicalities - that the USSR would oversee Korea above the line as we transitioned to independence and formed our own country. We thought we were free, but so far the only difference in our lives here on Jeju was that the Japanese flag was lowered, and the American flag was raised. One colonizer had been replaced by another." Page 154
In my view, there was too much time spent covering the ever changing political situation to the detriment of character development and character growth. An estrangement was the most interesting focal point of the novel and without giving away any spoilers about whether (or not) there was any reconciliation, the ending was satisfying and realistic.

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See is recommended for readers who enjoy their historical fiction supported by a detailed knowledge of the political and military background at the time to add validity to the story and highlight the horrors of the past. An interest in Korea will enhance your enjoyment.

I'm looking forward to reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane in the new year!

My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. I liked this book a bit more than you did! We have just booked a cruise that will be stopping in Jeju! Only 432 sleeps to go! lol

    Thanks for sharing your review with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge!

    1. How exciting that you'll actually get to visit Jeju! It'll be so much better having read this book with plenty of time to look forward to it!


Thanks for your comment, Carpe Librum!