Fans of Lisa See know and love her for her detailed historical fiction stories that include strong female characters. In See’s latest book, The Island of Sea Women, her story begins in the 1930’s and 40’s during the Japanese occupation of Korea and the island of Jeju. Through the eyes of best friends, Young-Sook and Mi-ja, two young haenyeo, we witness the political upheaval after WWII, the atrocities committed against citizens, and their desire and struggle to control their own country without interference from others.
I had never heard of the haenyeo before reading this book. With her meticulous research, See introduces readers to these well-respected, strong and staunchly independent women and their unique matrilineal society. They are the heads of their families and the sole providers who risk their lives daily to fish using the methods haenyeo have used for generations while their husbands typically stay home to watch the kids (and apparently not much else).
While the haenyeo culture and its matrifocal way of life was interesting to witness, the story itself is a bit of a slower read. A lot of historical detail is given and having that background is important to understanding Korea’s struggle for independence and how that influenced the haenyeo. While some scenes were difficult to read due to their violence, I respect that See doesn’t hold back on her descriptions detailing the horrors inflicted on the people of Jeju as they struggled under Japanese occupation and later when the US got involved.
The Island of Sea Women is a historical fiction novel that focuses on the lives of the unique and powerful haenyeo (a culture many people have probably have never heard of), the history of Korea (that many people may have never learned about in school) and the lives of two friends whose sister-like bond is put to the test by family loyalty, hardships, loss and misunderstanding. This is an eye-opening and touching read about culture, friendship and the struggle of a nation to be autonomous.
— Laurie P.
Note: our friends at Kitchener Public Library are presenting “An Evening With Lisa See” on March 25, 2019 at 7:00pm at the Central Library on Queen Street. Registration is required for this free event.