The Island of Sea Women [Book Review]

May 27, 2019

Have you experienced a patriarchal or matriarchal culture?

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

Island of Sea Women by Lisa See (cover) Image: two South Korean women stand next to the sea dressed for collecting and diving

Genre/Categories: Historical Fiction, South Korea, Women’s Roles

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My Summary:

You may have read The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, or Shanghai Girls by popular author Lisa See.

In The Island of Sea Women, See imagines the story of Mi-ja and Young-sook. As the story begins, we are introduced to these two young girls living on the Korean Island of Jeju. Although the girls are best friends, they come from very different backgrounds. As the girls mature, they begin working in the sea with other women in the village as part of the diving collective (the haenyo). Even though diving is dangerous, the girls are eager to be allowed to join the women of the sea as they learn the trade and follow in the tradition of the other women in the village who are the sole providers for their families. In this matriarchal culture, the men stay home, cook, and assume primary care for the children. Women take on the responsibility of providing an income from selling the bounty of their diving expeditions. It’s women who worry about the livelihood of their families and village, assume great physical risks, and take responsibility for knowing the best locations and times/conditions to dive. The sea women dive when they are pregnant and sometimes give birth on the boat as part of their workday if necessary. The story begins in the 1930s and continues through WW11, the Korean War, and the modern technology boom. Over the decades, circumstances put the girls’ friendship under great strain and the story encompasses their entire lives. It’s a story of a unique culture, friendship, understanding, community, and a dangerous and demanding profession.

My Thoughts:

Well Researched and Engaging Story Telling: Readers can always depend on Lisa See for well-researched historical fiction and a compelling story. Filled with vivid details, I felt what it was like to live and work on Jeju, the women’s heartaches and challenges, and their camaraderie with other women in the collective. When I started this story, I didn’t know anything about this culture or the events that took place on the island, so I learned a great deal.

Themes: Thoughtful themes include friendship, forgiveness, loyalty, community, loss, memories, reconciliation, and strong, determined, resilient, and resourceful women.

Characters: Lisa See writes complicated and well-developed characters. It took me some time to feel connected with the characters in The Island of Sea Women. In comparison, I made quicker connections with the characters in The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (possibly because of the adoption theme). In The Island of Sea Women, there’s a great deal of historical detail, new culture, several characters, and politics to navigate. Although by the conclusion of The Island of Sea Women, I was deeply invested.

Content warning: In Island of Sea Women, there is one scene (the 4.3 Incident/Massacre) that is fairly intense and emotional. I skimmed it.

Recommendation: I recommend The Island of Sea Women for readers looking for well-written and researched historical fiction, for fans of Lisa See, for those who might appreciate a compelling fictional account of Korean history and culture, and for book clubs.

My Rating: 4 Stars


Island of Sea Women

The Island of Sea Women Information

Meet the Author, Lisa See

Lisa SeeLisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, Shanghai Girls, Dreams of Joy, and China Dolls. Her most recent novel, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, will be released by Scribner in March 2017. Booklist has said of the new novel, “See’s focus on the unbreakable bonds between mothers and daughters, by birth and by circumstance, becomes an extraordinary homage to unconditional love.” Ms. See has also written a mystery series that takes place in China, as well as On Gold Mountain, which is about her Chinese-American family. Her books have been published in 39 languages. Ms. See was honored as National Woman of the Year by the Organization of Chinese American Women in 2001, was the recipient of the Chinese American Museum’s History Makers Award in 2003, and is slated to receive the Golden Spike Award from the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California in 2017.


Have you read Lisa See’s work?

Do you like learning about a different culture?

Is The Island of Sea Women on your TBR or have you read it?

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Unless explicitly stated that they are free, all books that I review have been purchased by me or borrowed from the library.

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  1. Great review! I love how it’s detailed without giving away much. I also agree with all your comments. I loved this book and look forward to more (this was my first).

  2. This was my first novel by Lisa See and I was initially attracted by the incredible photo on the cover, if a picture can be said to contain a thousand words, this is one that surely does that, it created much intrigue in my mind, as did the title and then the premise of the blurb.

    I was so fascinated by the existence of this matrifocal collective of women that even in reviewing the novel, I found it hard to concentrate on sharing what the story was about, it was just so interesting to discover this culture where women headed up the household, went out to work and men as a result were perceived quite differently than they are in the patriarchal society we live in today.

    I had recently read Riane Eieler’s The Chalice and the Blade which talks about two forms of society – 1) Dominator and 2) Partnership and so it was amazing to then read this novel which highlights I think, a form of the second model of society (although it should be noted that matriarchy (and patriarchy) are models of the first form. It almost came as no surprise that it was undermined by the imposition of rules and regulations of the patriarchy, the political environment was against any form of collective or collaboration between peoples.

    A wonderful introduction to an author that is new to me.

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