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Book Review: The Island of Sea Women


Article by Mary Ellin Arch

Photography by Johnny Chen on Unsplash

A wrenching story of female friendship, set in a part of the world probably unknown to you (as it was to me): Jeju Island, South Korea, a “matrifocal” society back in the mid-20th century when the story takes place. Then, women were breadwinners in the grueling physical labor of deep-sea diving to “farm” the watery “fields” of the ocean floor. Meanwhile, husbands tended hearth and home and brought squalling babies to their diving mothers at midday. In this culture, daughters were prized along with sons, for females supported the family; yet it was the boys who were educated, while their sisters remained illiterate.

Against this backdrop, author Lisa See explores the friendship and the betrayal (but was it really?) between Young-sook and Mi-ja, and explores how forgiveness can take a lifetime and even longer. Throughout, See deftly weaves in the history of Jeju during what might have been its most tempestuous time — World War II, the Japanese occupation, the American occupation, and the Korean and Vietnam wars, a period that included the horrific 4.3 Incident, which See describes unflinchingly.

This is a great book — not only because it’s a great story, a lyrical masterpiece and a fabulous discussion book for clubs (Is collaboration with the enemy ever OK in wartime? Why is forgiveness so hard? How long must offspring suffer the sins of their fathers?), but also for the impeccably researched history and the exquisite detail about the lives of the female divers, the haenyeo, a precious piece of Jeju culture that is very nearly gone. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

4.5 out of 5, rounded up (a scene or two will be tough on the squeamish; please don’t let that stop you).