The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

Historical Fiction, 374 pages, published in March 2019

Synopsis: This story follows to friends, Young-sook and Mi-ji, both haenyeo (lady divers) on the island of Jeju in Korea, across many years. Starting in the 1930’s and spanning Japanese colonialism, World War II, the Jeju Island Uprising, the Korean War, and the fall of the haenyeo, the two women and their friendship face the changes and hardships of war, conflict, and modernization.
*WARNING:* this book deals with a lot of heavy topics, including violence, death, rape, and general darkness

Non-Spoiler Review:

I really wanted to love this book. I had heard about Jeju and the women divers there from various KDramas I’ve seen, so I was excited to learn more about them. However, I was not prepared for the contents of this book. I broke this review up into some sections because there are a lot of things I want to cover.

I Wish This Book Had Some Kind of Content Warning

I was definitely expecting there to be some dark stuff because of the time period, but I was not expecting it to be at this level. Young-sook, whose point of view is the majority of the book, goes through and sees so many terrible events happen. Most of this happens about in the middle of the book, when the Jeju Uprising is happening. The descriptions of violence and rape were just way too much for me. There are some descriptions that were used that I just can’t get out of my head. The fact that this was a real historical event and so many people went through this overwhelmed me and honestly had me thinking really dark thoughts. I had to put this book down for over a month before I felt like I was in the right headspace to deal with these things again.

There was no indication on the cover, description, or blurbs on the back that this book would so heavily include this content. If I had known, I would have either not read the book or I would have prepared myself for it, but instead I went on a mental spiral thinking about the terrible things that people can do to one another. I knew there was going to be hardships for these women, but I thought it would be more things outside anyone’s control, like natural disasters or illness. I was just very uncomfortable with the content in this book.

Young-sook

I didn’t really like Young-sook as a character. She starts the book as young girl, so I can’t fault her for what she did then, but I feel like even as an adult, she was stubborn and bitter in bad ways. She wasn’t open to any kind of change in tradition and she was also unwilling to listen to another side of a story. I grew very frustrated with her at the end of the book. I’ll reference this again in the spoilers section below. She obviously had a very hard life, but some of the pain later on in her life was brought on by her own grudges.

Learning About History + The Presentation of Jeju in Korean Media

One thing I did appreciate about this book was that I learned a ton about the history of Jeju Island. As I said before, I knew about Jeju from KDramas, but I had no idea what happened on this island in the recent past. The Jeju Uprising was so covered up by the Korean government that it was a criminal offense to even talk about it until recently. A huge percentage of the population of the island was killed during this event, and if the portrayal of it in the book is accurate, a lot of the people killed just wanted a better life. Jeju has a good location for a military advantage, so they were constantly occupied by one army or another, and most people just wanted to be free. Villages were burned down and families were ripped apart because up to 30,000 people were killed.

It was interesting to me because in any sort of media I have seen mentioning Jeju in Korean media, it is marketed as a beautiful vacation destination. Like “look at the beautiful ocean and lush greenery, but don’t think about the thousands of people that the South Korean government had killed and hid from the public”. It’s just so messed up to me, but I never would have learned about this horrific event if not for this book.

Final Thoughts

I didn’t love this book. It made me uncomfortable in a way that wasn’t good and I didn’t love any of the characters. I was frustrated with Young-sook for a lot of the time. I did appreciate the friendship in the beginning, but it wasn’t enough for me. I do have a lot of feelings about this book, but none of them are necessarily good. To be honest, I’m just glad I’m done with it.

SPOILERS SECTION

I needed to have a spoiler section on this review because I need to talk about the ending. It bothered me so much. Obviously, Young-sook had a right to feel betrayed by Mi-ja, since her husband, sister-in-law, and son died because of that incident. The thing that gets me though is that Young-sook never even gives her a chance to explain what happened or why she did what she did. She carries this grudge for years and years. What makes me the most mad is that she can’t accept Min-lee and Yo-chan being in love. Min-lee was a miracle baby to Young-sook, a final gift I suppose from her husband, and one of the only family members she had left, but she was willing to never speak to her again because of her love. Yo-chan obviously wasn’t involved with the incident, but Young-sook was just so stuck on the idea that a child’s parents make them who they are. Her grudge was stronger than her love for her daughter. When she finally does hear what Mi-ja had to say, she forgives her, but its already way too late. Mi-ja and Min-lee are dead, so she lost all that time being spiteful and hurt.

4 thoughts on “The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

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