I was first introduced to Lisa See’s writing through THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE, which was one of my favourite books read in 2017. So imagine my delight to hear that the author had a new book out!
I admit that I knew very little (i.e. nothing) of Jeju’s history, the little Korean island that is home to our two main characters. In the 1930s, when Mi-ja and Young-sook were little girls, the island was quite unique for its matriarchic society. It fell to the women to provide an income through diving, whilst the men raised the children, did the housework and tended to the gardens. Young-sook’s mother was one of the head “haenyeo” on the island, teaching the younger women to dive - how to hold their breaths, how to read the ocean and how to stay alive in this dangerous occupation. “A woman is not meant for the household!” she said to her daughter. It’s a fascinating culture and much too complex to explain here, but See does a great job in making her haenyeo characters come to life. We meet Mi-ja and Young-sook when they are mere “baby divers” starting out on their journey, and accompany them through their whole lives into old age. And what tragic, heartbreaking lives they lived! I had no idea of the terrible history of the island when I started reading this book.
I loved See’s descriptions of island life and the culture of the haenyeo, and the story drew me in very quickly. In my review of THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE I reflected: “See seamlessly blends facts and fiction, educating the armchair traveller as the story progresses and adding depth to her characters.” At the start of the story, this was also the case here, and I was transported very quickly into Mi-ja and Young-sook’s world. However, maybe because of the long time-span covered in this book (a whole lifetime), I felt that after the girls had been married off to their respective husbands and had children of their own, I lost connection with the two main characters. Perhaps it was also due to the fact that the story moved along very quickly at that point, and focused very strongly on political events, but I had the impression that See was keeping her characters at arms’ length and that the personal stories got lost along the way.
Saying that, THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN is a meticulously researched book, and See’s knowledge of Korea’s history and the haenyeo culture shines through from beginning to end. See is not afraid to include some graphic scenes from horrendous massacres on the island, as seen through the eyes of her characters, which I had been totally ignorant of. Interwoven with these historical events is the friendship bond between the two women, which will be put to the test when they are confronted with an impossible choice in a life-or-death situation. Personally, I would have preferred if the story had focused on Mi-ja and Young-sook when they were unmarried girls working as haenyeo, and I never tired of the descriptions of haenyeo culture and lifestyle, which were fascinating. I interrupted my reading several times to look up photos and facts about the haenyeo, which gave me a vivid picture of the island women. I felt the timeline in the present a lot less immersive, and caught myself skipping some part to get back to the past.
All in all, THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN read like a strange hybrid between fiction and non-fiction for me. At times, it was like receiving a history lesson, making it more of an educational experience for me than an emotional one, which was ok, but I had hoped to have more of my heart involved than my brain. Lovers of historical fiction will appreciate See’s extensive knowledge not only of the history of the island, but also of haenyeo culture, which was fascinating. I strongly recommend visiting the author’s website where she shares some links to photos and footage of haenyeo women.