Moving, insightful, relevant: this novel from the perspective of one of Korea’s famous grandma free-divers, the haenyeo, took me by surprise.
On the South Korean island of Jeju there is a tradition – nearly faded into myth – of female free divers who provide for and, in many senses are the heads of, their families. These women have shiver temperatures lower than any other group of humans on the planet and have been the subject of much research and attention in the years following the Korean War. Due to conflict, suppression, the extremely hard lifestyle, and modernization of the island, the numbers of haenyeo on the island have dwindled from more than 20,000 to around 2,000 active divers. Nearly all of these women are in their 50s and 60s or older. Jeju is the island of sea women; the author uses her protagonist, the haenyeo Young-Sook, as a device to travel through the modern history of Jeju and introduce her readers to its remarkable inhabitants and their devastating experiences.
Lisa See front loads her novel with information. For the first half it reads more like a non-fiction account of end of Japanese colonialism on Jeju and a report of the history of haenyeo diving society. After only a few chapters into the book, I read the Wikipedia page on Jeju and haenyeo divers to discover that See was, indeed, regaling her readers with a lot of minutia. I knew very little about Jeju or the history of modern Korea, so for me this was interesting, but not exactly like reading the typical sprawling, character driven historical fiction. In fact, though we stay with Young-Sook from the time she’s a baby-diver until she’s one of the oldest divers on the island in the new Millennium, The Island of Sea Women is a novel of place, rather than people.
With its crashing waves and goddess mountain, Jeju Island is truly the central character of the novel. What happens on and to the island will make any reader’s mind reel – especially when you must face the facts that the only liberties See is taking with the story are with her characters’ individual lives. This island, now considered the “Hawaii of Korea,” was the site of despotic colonialism from various foreign nations for decades, before eventually falling under the heel of Soviet and American imperialism. The atrocities through which the inhabitants of this island have lived is stunning and See’s novel helps contextualize this history with human perspective.
Author of The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien, said “that’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth,” and this applies fully to The Island of Sea Women. By the climax of the story, See has developed her characters and allows them to live in the world she built so diligently. See brings the facts and figures from the Wikipedia page to life by allowing the reader to become invested in Young-Sook. No longer are the astonishing number of dead or hidden mass graves just another data point in the litany of death that is world history. Rather, we see this poignant, tragic, shameful period as a lived moment. We share in Young-Sook’s tragedy and her hope. This is the power of fiction: though a world away, living a life I can barely comprehend, I feel connected to the island of sea women simply because I heard their story.
I recommend The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See to readers interested in Korean history, modern history, women’s stories, stories with strong female protagonists, and lovers of stories of place. It’s heavy on the background and history, so I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for a breezy romantic historical fiction. There is violence and at least one explicitly graphic scene involving a child.