Little is known about Jeju- a Korean island- occupied by brutal Japanese troops in the 1930s and ’40s, later liberated by US forces and turned over to the even more barbarous Korean regime whose wrongdoings were overlooked by both American and U.N. occupiers. Lisa See travels back 75 years to these horrifying events and weaves a narrative that intertwines these historical happenings with the haenyeo culture of female divers who created a semi-matriarchal society in which they were the breadwinners while their husbands carried out domestic duties and menial work. Through the story of Mi-ja and Young-sook, two women divers from strikingly different backgrounds, but both part of their village’s all-female diving collective, See introduces the reader to this unique and unexplored culture of female diving. She does so while exploring the effects that Japanese colonialism, the Second World War and the Korean war had on shaping their lives and the island of Jeju. The historical fiction novel is written as a dual-narrative which alternates between Young-sook’s life as a fishing diver in 1938 and the dwellings of this past life retold in 2008.
The haenyeo culture is poorly understood, and, to this day, no one quite comprehends the bond its women have to the ocean, their endurance and what their lifestyle encompassed. See embarks on researching their lives and reports the protagonist’s and her friends’ careers and life choices (often forced upon them). Starting with diving locally and selling their catch, Young-sook and Mi-ja- both married and pregnant- soon had to acquire contract diving work in Vladivostok, Russia, to earn more money and support themselves as well as their families. While they dove into the ice-cold waters, their body temperatures fell to levels unrecorded anywhere else in the world. As two near-fatal incidents proved, abalone and giant octopuses comprised the riskiest yet most prized catch. Descriptions of their fishing endeavours and encounters with the ocean’s predators, as well as often deadly prey, portray the threats these female divers faced but also prove the unique skills and knowledge they possessed.
“Every woman who enters the sea carries a coffin on her back.” says the chief diver. “In this world, in the undersea world, we know the burdens of a hard life. We are crossing between life and death every day.”
In the first half of the novel, See explores the craft of the haenyeo: free diving, pre-wetsuit diving equipment and sumbisori: the art of held breath and a vocal practice based on techniques also used by whales and seals which enables the human body to dive down to 20m below the sea level. In the latter part of the book, See backdrops the lives of Young-sook and Mi-ja against the horrendous events that took place on Jeju island and the loss and betrayal that followed, introducing the reader to this untold but crucial part of history.
In conclusion, ‘The Island of Sea Women’ is an important work of historical fiction that introduces and explores a culture little is known about. Through a story of incredible friendship, hardship, loss, betrayal and endurance, See not only tells a beautiful tale of two female divers, the art they cultivated, and their wisdom and perseverance but draws our attention to important events which shaped and often destroyed the lives of many like them living on Jeju. It introduces the reader to a very different way of life, shines light on exclusive knowledge, intricate fishing and harvesting techniques, indigenous wisdom, the reversal of traditional gender roles and a society governed by rules and customs very different to our own.
To all those interested in diving, finding out more about the haenyeo culture and Korea’s turbulent history, I wholeheartedly recommend this one-of-a-kind read.
This review is the eighteenth in our new Marine Madness Book Club! At the beginning of every month we will be releasing a new review of an ocean inspired book and encouraging you to let us know what you think in the comments and via social media. To find out more visit the Book Club page here.