Readers, I have something for a wide range of you this month.
Love historical fiction? Love conflict? Distraught by the patriarchy? All of the above?
“The Island of Sea Women” by Lisa See is a captivating historically based novel about the divers of Jeju Island in Korea taking place beginning in the 1930s, spanning the time from Japanese Colonialism to World War II to the Korean War to present times.
Mi-Ja and Young-sook are part of the legacy that is Jeju’s sea women. Jeju is unusual in that it’s a matrilineal society where women go out and earn a living for the family while the men stay home to care for the children. That living is made free-diving for all the treasures in the sea: abalone, octopus, sea slugs (and those are the more appealing catches, it gets much grosser from there). Girls are trained to swim practically from birth and once they get to be about 13 they start working for their diving collective as baby divers. They graduate to deep sea diving by their mid teens and continue doing so until their late 50s when they are retired to tasks such as seaweed harvesting.
Mi-Ja and Young-sook are raised practically as sisters though Mi-Ja is met with suspicion by others in their village because she’s the daughter of a Japanese collaborator. Young-sook on the other hand, is the daughter of the daughter of the lead diver, a haenyeo who will pass her status and position to her.
As they grow into their roles their fates are separated by the effects of war in Korea and they find themselves estranged. It’s only many years later when the younger generations seek answers regarding their estrangement do the true facts come to life.
The novel is breathtaking, literally, in its descriptions. Picture the women, clad only in cotton shirt and pants diving meters under the sea with only knives, hooks and baskets to store their treasures. They must be able to spot their prey and collect it while keeping an eye out for dangers from underwater predators. They do all this on only a deeply held breath. The divers of Jeju Island have mastered their profession for hundreds of years. Their ability to stay underwater for extended lengths of time without any breathing apparatus is legendary.
Lisa See is a master of historical fiction, taking readers into unknown worlds and making them accessible and this one is no exception. I highly, highly recommend picking it up. Before you do, take a look at some YouTube videos of the divers to get a sense of what to expect. I guarantee you’ll be as fascinated as I was.