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The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

Set on the Korean island of Jeju, The Island of Sea Women follows Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls from very different backgrounds.

Set on the Korean 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 closest of bonds. Nevertheless, their differences are impossible to ignore: Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, forever marking her, and Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers. After hundreds of dives and years of friendship, forces outside their control will push their relationship to the breaking point.

This beautiful, thoughtful novel illuminates a unique and unforgettable culture, one where the women are in charge, engaging in dangerous physical work, and the men take care of the children. A classic Lisa See story—one of women’s friendships and the larger forces that shape them—The Island of Sea Women introduces readers to the fierce female divers of Jeju Island and the dramatic history that shaped their lives.

The Island of Sea WomenThe Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Such an insightful, moving look into the life of a haenyeo, the women divers, who plunge into the often frigid waters off the coast of Jeju Island, South Korea, retrieving sea objects, creating a livelihood, a culture that is unlike any other.

I listened to this one as an audiobook, narrated by Jennifer Lim. The sound overall could have benefited from some better mixing. I really enjoyed her narration voice when she wasn’t screaming. Also her Korean pronunciation was the best. She had a lot of clarity in her voice so she could get away with running words together for the most part. My ears however were constantly bracing for the screeching that would unexpectedly come up. So much so that I couldn’t bear the fluctuations with headphones or even in the car. Certain characters were too punchy and abrupt in both volume and as characterization, especially the mother. She was depicted as a strict Korean mama, but came off as horribly terse, like a cackling witch from a fairy tale. Wicked, sinister, and demanding. These exaggerated villainous voices were just ear piercing. I experienced so much tension while listening to the book, almost DNFd it several times.

So for the writing, first, this was very interesting topic to capture. See made certain aspects of the story feel alive. She connected thoughts very well and was able to characterize them in a person. She wrote with a certain fluidity of certainty that I didn’t feel I had to question, I think it was most likely attributed to her research done well.

I also loved the telling of history as it was known and perceived, especially the that which was taken from an experiential standpoint. There was no attempt at trying to make the nonfiction aspect fit into a postmodern, PC fiction tale and I really, really appreciated that.

I thought the first person narrative was very fitting.

However for some reason, it didn’t embody any one person on a deeper level but remained surfacy to a certain extent. So most of this review is me figuring out what was lacking on that front.

The story often stayed as observational status mode. The integrity was there, but maybe the reason I felt that way was because of the approach. I imagined it was a difficult balance of interrupting the story to interject backstory, context, feeling, situations, the often difficult part of writing historical fiction.

The story encompassed a very wide time span, not only through the wars chronologically, but also through the women’s lives. Colonial Japanese occupation, suppression, family dynamics, historically speaking, there was a lot to unpack in this book.

With the coverage of so many differing eras and growth stories into one story, I found it wavering in and out. It was reflective of concrete historical events but I would have liked more emotional reflection. The end was a little more self-reflective but the attempts sounded more like a psychiatric analysis.

Instead, I wanted to grow with the characters in their journey. But maybe it was the characters that were just too polished. The main character, while at age 15, would have benefited from incomplete thoughts, fragments, something to convey either a stage or a phase in life to grow from. Or perhaps some sort of personal or physical development that would have been just as insightful and fascinating as the telling of haenyeo. She was too self aware. The dialogue reflected that, it was too polished, too square, to be as effective as it could have been.

Sometimes the story became too informative, rather than integrated into the plot. Example, there was a reference to an interaction where Mi-ja and Young-sook talked a certain way so that the other character would have the sense she was still a young girl. And that was that. Just a reference. Why not make such an interaction part of the story to gain a sense of experience from their point of view?

Perhaps I would liked to have seen something a little more here. Like an unappreciative or rebellious daughter, questioning of life as a haenyeo, perhaps being mentored by her grandmother, maybe like a coming of age story, some type of connectivity…

Maybe it was because it was too retrospective instead of bringing me into the experience at the moment. Perhaps it was just too insightful all around. I would have liked to have experienced her story first hand. I wanted to feel and discover her roots, tradition, and culture as she discovered them. There was a portrayal of deeply personal, heavy-hearted stories stories, but there was so much needed revelation and it took such a long development of time. I would have just liked to have seen growth in the way that the main character saw herself, even if the time frame was substantially shortened and certain facts had to go without saying.

I almost would have liked to have had it read like a women’s gossip group or something like a bunch of Korean women sitting around chit-chatting about life and such. Actually I honestly think one could make a dynamic cozy mystery series out of such an exhilarating group of women.

I don’t know. Maybe it was difficult not knowing exactly how to hone in on such a story because as a writer you may not really know, who your audience will be when writing a story like this. Do they know anything about the haenyeo women? How about war history? Can I provide them with the introspection to understand why the characters would choose this life knowing what they already know? Should I choose a character either an adult or young woman to better relate to a certain demographic and be happy with that? Or take them through the entire lifespan journey of womanhood and assume they will identify with certain aspects?

I loved the quotes and facts intermingled with the stories from the haenyeo but they were just put into the plot. They didn’t develop or enhance or portray something the character lacked or strived for. They were not as interwoven in the way I wanted them to be.

I think for this book I mostly enjoyed the facts, but at the same time I wanted something more character-driven because this is the tale I thought it set out to tell. The writing talent was there, but I wanted the characters to close it all in for me. I wanted a sharing of all these interesting facts suited for nonfiction but because it was cited as historical fiction, I also wanted to live it. I suppose I wanted the book to read like a fictional, accessible, creative story keeping sight of a personal message, while maintaining a certain capacity of interesting facts all at the same time.

Again, figuring out what more it was that I wanted from this book, it was just a deeper connection.

All in all, it was an amazing book and I’d highly recommend it for those interested in learning more about the haenyeo and certain aspects of Korean history.

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