Book Review | The Island of Sea Women by Lisa Lee

Author : Lisa Lee
Published on : March 5, 2019
Publisher : Scribner
Genre : Fiction, Historical Fiction

Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends that come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility but also danger.

Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook’s differences are impossible to ignore. The Island of Sea Women is an epoch set over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War and its aftermath, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, and she will forever be marked by this association. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that after surviving hundreds of dives and developing the closest of bonds, forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.

I had no idea about these amazing female divers of Jeju Island called “Haenyeo” until I read this book. Haenyeo are determined and fearless. They are the bread winners in their families while their husbands stay at home to take care of their children. Reading stories featuring matriarchal society always fascinates me. It also makes me think. If this kind of society already exists (or has existed) then why men are having a hard time accepting that women are equally strong as them, if not stronger than them.

Anyway, this book follows the story of Mi-ja and Young-sook. They’re both haenyeo and despite of their different backgrounds they still became best of friends. They shared a lot of great memories and one of my favorites was the day when Mi-ja introduces Young-sook to “rubbing” and teaches her how to do it. Sorry but you have to read the book to know what it is. They went through a lot of life-changing experiences that tested their bond and threaten their friendship.

It was a slow start for me but the story picked up in the middle and I couldn’t stop reading. I’ve learned a lot from this book. The author did a wonderful job researching and sharing important and tragic historical events in this book. Some parts were hard to read and there’s one particular horrific scene that brought me to tears. It still makes my eyes teary everytime I think about it. This book is beautifully written, heart-wrenching at times, but definitely worth reading.

My Rating : ★★★★☆
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