May 27, 2019
Have you experienced a patriarchal or matriarchal culture?
The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
Genre/Categories: Historical Fiction, South Korea, Women’s Roles
*This post contains Amazon affiliate links.
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 for 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.
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
Meet the Author, Lisa See
Lisa 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?
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