The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
First Line: An old women sits on the beach, a cushion strapped to her bottom, sorting algae that’s washed ashore.
Summary: 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. They spend all their time together, as best friends do, sharing secrets, dreams, wishes and their shared plans for their futures. Life and circumstances have a way of altering the best of plans. Separated when they are married, they try to maintain their friendship until a tragic event drives them apart.
Thoughts: Lisa See writes of relationships between women with such insight. Despite their circumstances, she always finds a way to make them triumph over pain, loss and political unrest. The women in her books are strong and resilient.
This book truly is a deep dive and was well-researched. I did not know about the haenyeo, their matricentric society or their culture. I learned a lot about its history through the context of the story. Korea has had a volatile relationship within its borders, with China and with the US yet remains a beautiful country with a rich history. I don’t know what I found more fascinating: the diving culture, the relationship of men and women in the society, the various occupiers/overseers of the country … I couldn’t put it down. The writing lets you feel the hurt and violence and yet allows you to contemplate the true nature of love and forgiveness over the course of a lifetime.
The Island of Sea Women taught me about a way of life I never knew existed and also about human suffering, redemption and forgiveness.
FYI: (trigger warnings……murder, suicide, graphic war descriptions, abuse). The book covers a large time period through WW2, the Korean War and into the present. So many historical events and tragedies occur over that time period for this small spot in the world.