The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

Title: The Island of Sea Women
Author: Lisa See
Genre: Historical Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Length: 374 pages
Publisher: Scribner
Publish Date: March 5, 2019
Setting: Jeju (The Republic of Korea)
War, Death, Sex, Abuse, Childbirth,
Violence against Women
Korean, Japanese

Yes, once again I changed up the format of my review, and I was inspired by the thoughts that I was having while reading this book. Honestly, I don’t remember what made me pick it up, but I definitely don’t regret it. I hope you enjoy my review, and I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on some of the points I want to discuss today.

Well obviously you knew I changed my format up since this wasn’t the first review I ended up posting with this new format, but I didn’t feel like changing that first paragraph. Thanks for dealing with my crazy.

  • The Jeju haenyeo remind me of the Japanese ama, which I just so happened to read about in a YA Fantasy book about vampire ninjas, so that was interesting.
  • The way this is written reminds me of The Joy Luck Club for some reason. Not for the content but the way that things are stated as fact, not so much embellished for the sake of it. Does that even make sense?
  • Why do I feel like this book is going to break my heart?
  • It’s going to break my heart, isn’t it.
  • I’m not prepared.

Collectivism in the Korean culture

This stuck with me throughout the entire time I was reading this novel, because I remember learning about this in high school and college. The idea of individualism vs. collectivism, and how more Asian cultures will follow collectivism with the family being the most important factor in a person’s life rather than the American individualism concept of “every man for himself”. Growing up in an Asian family, I could totally relate to this compared to some of my other classmates, and honestly I couldn’t understand how we could be so different until I learned about this concept.

However, I know that as this book went on, that idea seemed to change a bit in the newer generation. But they were able to make better lives for themselves because of the sacrifices that the older generation made for them. So that’s something to think about as well.

Sex as a job; creating a family rather than enjoying each other’s touch

While Mi-ja and Young-sook had different experiences during their first year of marriage, both of them had the main goal of conceiving and birthing a child as soon as possible. It was pretty much expected of them from their in-laws within a month of them getting married. When neither of them were pregnant by that time, their mother in-laws made an agreement that the two women had to go pray to the fertility goddess every other day to help increase their chances before their husbands left for long periods of time. I understand that continuing on the family line is important, and especially in this culture, having sons to perform the rituals to take care of the family in the Afterworld is crucial, but this did make me wonder if the women even enjoyed having sex with their husbands. It never really seemed like it was done for fun, for love, you know? At least not always.

Concept of traditional marriage in Jeju sea villages

The women of the sea villages like Hado would become haenyeo, and in essence were the main providers for their families. According to the Jeju culture, women just had a better chance of being able to dive for long periods of time, in deep waters, for many more years than men could. They raised their daughters to be haenyeo, and it was considered a major blessing to have many daughters. Each woman in the family was a source of income. While having a son was still important, it was seen as more beneficial to have more girls. Due to this, the wives were the ones that provided allowances to their husbands, and while the women were working in their “wet fields”, the husbands would take care of the children.

Looking at the “traditional” European and American marriages in the past, the women were usually the home makers and the men were the breadwinners. When Young-sook’s husband got a job being a teacher and she was at home taking care of her daughter and her sister-in-law, she considered it an nontraditional marriage, because she wasn’t the one working.

The Jeju society was defined as matrifocal later on in the book, and I don’t think I’ve really seen any story that has a matrifocal society at the forefront of the plot. Yes, this is the true way that the Jeju society is, so it wasn’t about having to create something new or innovating, but just seeing this take place and having the proper spotlight on a culture that doesn’t get much coverage on it in a way that doesn’t romanticize it was absolutely amazing.

Imperialism in Korea during and after WWII

During WWII, Korea was occupied by the Japanese. After Japan lost the war, they were colonized by the United States. In both cases, the Korean people were just terribly treated, and even though when the Americans took over they didn’t specifically do the damage, they didn’t so anything to stop it either. I won’t get more into this one because honestly reading about the “incidents” that happened in Buckeon and the other villages throughout Jeju just seriously made me so angry and hurt and pained. Everyone was affected by those massacres. Everyone. It was terrible, and they would hide the bodies and evidence by throwing them in the ocean. No trace left. And if anyone talked about it, they would be tortured and killed. They completely tried to erase this violence against the Jeju culture by silencing the survivors and those that wanted to protest against it.

Reactions to and Impacts of Death

With almost every single death that happened in this book, it seemed like Young-sook never had a chance to mourn properly. There just wasn’t enough time for her to truly feel any sort of grief. Neither of the women were able to, honestly. They experience a death in the collective, and they have to keep working and providing for their families and village. It almost felt like nobody was really negatively affected by it because they were surrounded by death from different aspects of their life – the dangers of diving, the war, the conditions of their homes, etc. The impacts were very long lasting, and even shaped those that survived into what they are today, but I feel like they weren’t given the opportunity to grieve in the way they needed to.

One of the main things that I really liked about this novel was that we got to see Young-sook and Mi-ja grow up from young girls into adult women. I mean of course, that’s the normal progress of someone growing up, but a lot of times books take place in a limited time period, only spanning about a year or two. So through the eyes of Young-sook, we got to see how both of these women grew up, and how their mindsets changed from what they initially knew. It was actually really heartbreaking that because of the Buckeon Massacre, the women lost their friendship for many years, and the truth – or at least the side of the story that we don’t get to hear – wasn’t revealed until the ending. It just sucked because they both ended up losing one another, and the pain from that day made it hard to forgive anyone.

I was so enchanted while reading this book, especially when I initially saw the similarities between the haenyeo and the ama. I had never read a book with these women in years, and to see that this took place in both Japan and Korea was so exciting to hear.

I was also so hurt. I know I mentioned that before. I couldn’t help but think about my grandma, and how she reminded me of Young-Sook in the way that they both sacrificed so much to give their families whatever they could. And yet the younger generations seem to take it for granted, hurting their feelings when they chastise them for not understanding certain things or wanting to pass on the tradition of their hard work and what their mothers taught them. I know that my grandma was a little girl when her family was put in the internment camps in Guam during WWII, and to this day she still can’t fully talk about what happened. And I can’t imagine ignoring what my grandma had to endure during her childhood, during her young adulthood, even to this day to provide for her family. I just can’t.

I think the pacing worked out in my favor, because it didn’t linger on one time period for longer than needed. Young-sook didn’t linger on certain periods of her life that weren’t as monumental as others, but to see how her personal life was affected by what was going on in the world around her was just shocking to see. Sometimes people forget that when we learn about certain things in history, actual people are living through it. Reading about what happened on Jeju is completely different from living through it, and I could barely imagine what those women had to endure, had to survive, for all those years.

The prose really reminded me of The Joy Luck Club because it was very straightforward. There wasn’t anything embellished to make it flowery or anything. Whenever there was violence, it was told as fact. This person was shot. This person was raped. They didn’t color the act to make it feel like a story. But it was still a story, someone telling us their story from their eyes. It meant so much more to me that way. And the prose and pacing worked out for the plot, so all three of them really intertwined in the best way.

While this wasn’t an #OwnVoices novel (See is Chinese-American), the research that she did in order to give this topic and these women the proper justice they deserve was worth applauding. However, one of the questions I had was whether or not there actually is an #OwnVoices novel about the Jeju women, or if that is even possible. At the beginning of the novel, when we first meet Young-sook without knowing exactly who she is, she mentions that there is a decline on haenyeo and that the majority that are around are older women. This tells me that the tradition isn’t being taught as much, or if they are trying to pass it on, the younger generations aren’t as willing to work as hard as their fore-mothers.

For some reason, this was the playlist I ended up listening to white writing this review, so I though I’d share it.

Like I mentioned earlier, I don’t remember what brought me to pick up this novel, or even start to listen to it (I ended up switching to the hardcover because I wasn’t focusing on the audiobook like I wanted to), but I am just so glad that I did.

Also, while I was reading this book, my mom and I found out that we are actually part Korean, so I was really excited to be able to learn about a side of me that I didn’t realize I had. While I don’t know where in Korea our family came from, and while I don’t think that our family came from Jeju, I have heard of the island and never looked it up before. Shame on me, but this insight into Jeju’s past was so educational and made me very emotional.

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

  1. Wonderful review, and I enjoyed the format! I loved this book so much. I never knew anything about the haenyeo before reading this, so in addition to being so moved by the characters and their stories, it was really an eye-opening experience.


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