The Tumultuous Tides of the Sea
Jeju Island is a curiosity. One of the provinces of South Korea, it is set apart by its location as it is the only island-province in the country. Home to numerous UNESCO Heritage Site, Jeju Island is a very idyllic place which draws in numerous tourists from all corners of the world. But this ethereal beauty masks a dark history that is riddled with with numerous bloodshed and uprisings. Despite the turn of events, the spirits of Jeju’s denizens never wavered; their indomitable spirits made them survive the tumultuous tides of time.
Every nook and cranny of the island has its own story to share. Lisa See’s latest work, The Island of Sea Women, offers an intimate peek into the history of Jeju through the story of Young-sook and Mi-ja’s friendship. Their circumstances could not be any more different – Young-sook’s mother is the chief haenyeo diver of their collective whilst Mi-ja’s father is tagged as a collaborator because of his connection with the Japanese occupiers.
These differences, however, did not hinder the two young women from creating a bond. From mere diving buddies to becoming bosom buddies, together they navigated the curves and oddballs of growing up. Like sisters, they shared each other’s secrets, pains, and joys. However, storm is brewing over the horizon, numerous external forces that are going to test how firm their friendship is. Lurking in the corner are various elements that possess the powers to strain what has been built. How will Young-sook and Mija
“They did this to me. They did that to me. A woman who thinks that way will never overcome her anger. You are not being punished for your anger. You’re being punished by your anger.” ~ Lisa See, The Island of Sea Women
Alternating between 2008 and the past, the novel is narrated mostly through Young-sook’s perspective. The depiction of Young-sook and Mi-ja’s friendship is heartwarming, especially at the start, when they were bonded by their differences rather than their similarities. Just like the sea, theirs is a depth beyond the azure colors. Just like the sea with its swinging moods, they had disagreements. Ultimately, their friendship is governed by choices, choices that have the power to undo what they have built together.
The Island of Sea Women evokes that familiar and nostalgic warmth of meeting one’s eternal best friend. However, the novel has more to offer beyond the trite tropes of friendship. The novel has more layers to it than what can be gleaned from the synopsis. Whilst the story of Young-sook and Mi-ja’s friendship is the centrifugal point of the entire narrative, it is just but one peel of the novel’s many numerous and colorful layers.
Through the two young women’s friendship, Lisa See was able to relate the fascinating story of one of Jeju’s most enduring symbols – the haenyeo. Haenyeo, Korean for “sea women”, is a group of female divers who dive together to catch seafood they can sell in order to provide for their families; their husbands are left to tend to their children. This practice has become a tradition, passed from one female generation to another, and is still prevalent in modern Jeju despite the the decline in numbers of haenyeo.
“The sea is better than a mother. You can love your mother, and she still might leave you. You can love or hate the sea, but it will always be there. Forever. The sea has been the center of her life. It has nurtured her and stolen from her, but it has never left.” ~ Lisa See, The Island of Sea Women
The exploration of the story of haenyeos and Jeju’s traditions is one of the novel’s loftiest accomplishments. The narrative’s overall complexion was further enhanced by the finely layered details of Jeju’s history, particularly from the 1930s to the 1950s, a period that is marked by bloodshed, the fight for freedom, and the struggles against foreign occupants. The tumultuous history made up for a wonderful backdrop to Young-sook and Mi-ja’s story. Lisa see did a commendable job of conjuring a story within another story, keeping the readers reeled in.
The wonderful themes of the novel were all capably sewn together by Lisa See’s capable hands. The output is a finely textured tapestry that is vivid with images. Waving her proverbial wand, she conjured an enthralling tale of friendship propped up by a wonderful albeit heartbreaking backdrop. See’s writing was stable all through out the story; her descriptions, particularly, were crisp and on point. The intersection of complex emotions were vividly captured.
As good as the writing was, it still wasn’t bereft of any blemishes. For a coming-of-age story, the character development was hounded by some challenges. Young-sook, whose voice dominated most of the narrative, was a little ephemeral rather than omniscient. At times, she has a silent strength but at times she wavered. The inconsistency made it a challenge connecting with her. Moreover, the novel’s pace was slower at the start before it picked up at the middle.
As the old age goes, save the best for last. Redemption did came at the end. For all its inconsistencies, the emotional journey came full circle with the emotionally-charged conclusion. Revelations at the end made Young-sook and Mi-ja’s story come full circle. See seamlessly tidily tied up everything with an enlightening and heartwarming denouement to what has been a roller coaster ride.
“You have been a good mother to your children, but now you must be an even better and stronger mother. Children are hope and joy. On land, you will be a mother. In the sea, you can be a grieving widow. Your tears will be added to the oceans of salty tears that wash in great waves across our planet. This I know. If you try to live, you can live on well.” ~ Lisa See, The Island of Sea Women
In her personal website, Lisa See was described as someone “intrigued by stories that have been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up, whether in the past or happening right now in the world today.” On the process of writing the novel, Lisa See traveled to Jeju to understand the haenyeo. She uncovered stories unheard of and from it, she was able to conjure a captivating story, a story of people, of traditions, and of a place.
The Island of Sea Women is a rich intersection of history, friendship and traditions capably brewed into one whirlpool of a story; it is a whirlpool that sucks you in with its magic. Parts historical novel, parts Bildungsroman, The Island of Sea Women is an emotionally moving tale about people and more importantly, about a place that lay witness to the tides, the surges, and the tumults of time. These elements make the novel an engaging and memorable read.
Characters (30%) – 23%
Plot (30%) – 26%
Writing (25%) – 22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%
I have to say I really loved the story albeit its main theme is very elementary – betrayal, friendship and forgiveness. It is perhaps this very same reason that it was easy finding an emotional connection with Young-sook and Mi-ja’s story. Apart from their story of grief, sorrow and love, what I was really enthralled with is the novel’s exploration of the story of haenyeos and the finely textured elements of history. The backdrop to the story was finely and vividly painted by Lisa See’s capable hands.
Through Lisa See’s powerful narrative, she managed to transport me to Jeju Island, made me experience its traditions and even envision its rough contours. The Island of Sea Women made me experience an entire spectrum of emotions that lingers.
Author: Lisa See
Publishing Date: March 2019
Number of Pages: 365 pages
Set on the island of Jeju, The Island of Sea Women follows Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls from very different backgrounds, as they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective. Over many decades – through the Japanese colonialism of the 1930s and 1940s, World War II, the Korean War, and the era of cellphones and wet suits for the women divers – Mi-ja and Young-sook develop the closes of bonds. But after hundreds of dives and years of friendship, forces outside their control will push their relationship to the breaking point.
About the Author
(Picture by Wikipedia) Lisa See was born on February 18, 1955 in Paris, France. Her mother, Carolyn See, is also a renowned novelist.
See grew up in Los Angeles and spent most of her time in the Los Angeles Chinatown. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Loyola Marymount University in 1979. From 1983 to 1996, See was the West Coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly. Before taking on writing full time, she wrote articles for various magazines such as Vogue, Self, and More.
Lisa Sees’ first published work, On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese American Family (1995) is a detailed account of her family history. See’s great-grandfather was Chinese. In 1997, she published her first novel, Flower Net, the first book of a trilogy, followed by The Interior (1999) and Dragon Bones (2003). Her other renowned works include Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), Shanghai Girls (2009), and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (2017).
Aside from writing, Lisa See is active in curating events related to Chinese-American heritage. She once guest curated at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage for an exhibit featuring the Chinese-American experience. She also helped develop and curate the Family Discovery Gallery at the same museum. She also curated the inaugural exhibition for the grand opening of the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles. She also wrote the libretto for the Los Angeles Opera based on On Gold Mountain.
She currently resides in Los Angeles.
Thank you for introducing to me haenyeo. This is an interesting practice from Korea. A new information for me. Good review. I like it as if I also read the book.
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I first encountered them while watching Korean variety shows. They’ve fascinated me though I never bother researching more about them because I never thought that there is a bigger story behind them. This makes me treasure the book because I now understand their history.