Friday, May 31, 2019

Epic Novel About Korea's Female Free-Divers Expansive, But Intimate

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

The Korean island of Jeju boasts an abundance of three things: wind, stones, and women.  In its matrifocal society, women known as haenyeo plunge into the sea—as they have for centuries—probing its depths in search of treasures like abalone, urchins, and octopus.  These delicacies are sold at market, making money for the women, their families, and the community.  Spots on the island's various all-female diving collectives are coveted, the honor passed down from mother to daughter.  It's a risky, all-consuming line of work.  While the women engage in hundreds of dangerous free dives over their lifetimes, their men stay behind to look after their homes and children.  Husbands may be given an allowance by their wives, but it's the latter that does all the bread-winning. 

Kim Young-Sook cannot wait to follow in her mother's footsteps and become part of the Hado collective, of which her mother is the leader.  She and her best friend, Han Mi-ja, are thrilled to become "baby divers" when they turn 15.  Being inducted into this exclusive community of women means inclusion, acceptance, and belonging.  Under the warm tutelage of the older women, Young-Sook and Mi-ja learn the fine arts of diving, collecting, and surviving in dangerous waters.  As the girls become proficient divers, even traveling to different countries to take lucrative diving jobs, they become closer than ever before.  But, as they grow up, their very different lives become even more divergent, until their paths no longer cross at all.  By the time they are wives and mothers, the estranged friends are doing all they can to survive the growing violence on their island as well as the more intimate concerns of poverty, abuse, child care, increasing restrictions on diving, and the clash between tradition and modernity that will change their island irrevocably.  The friendship that could sustain—and save—them both is tenuous, but is it truly gone forever?   

The Island of Sea Women, an epic novel by Lisa See, explores the friendship between two remarkable women over the course of several momentous decades.  Rich with detail about Jeju, the haenyeo, and Korea's tumultuous history, the novel is expansive and intimate at the same time.  The culture it explores is fascinating, the story it tells heartbreaking, but empowering.  Although The Island of Sea Women isn't a quick read, it's beautiful, absorbing, and unforgettable.  I loved it.

If you're interested in learning more about the haenyeo (a tradition/culture that still exists today, although the divers are now mostly old women), there are several videos you can watch on YouTube.  The one below gives a quick peek at what the divers do, but there are others that explore the culture in more depth.  



(Readalikes:  I haven't read much about Korea at all, let alone about the haenyeo, so I'm not sure what to compare this book to.  Suggestions?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence, blood/gore, mild sexual content, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of The Island of Sea Women from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.

8 comments:

  1. Hmmm . . . I think I may order this for you and follow you to an island . . . https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00KY28C5Y/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_U_x_Wiv8CbTQ48SGD

    Share this book with me, please - I'm interested in reading my second fiction book of the year!

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  2. I'm so glad to see you enjoyed it and it sounds fantastic! I won this in a Goodreads giveaway kind of randomly and am really looking forward to reading it.

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  3. This book sounds fascinating. I don't know much about Korea or Korean culture even though my nephew went there on his mission. Can't wait to check this one out. :)

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  4. I LOVED this book and am so glad that you did, too. Including the video is genius and so fun to see. Have you read Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy by Lisa See? They are also fabulous!

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  5. This book sounds completely fascinating. And the fact that it's based on such a remarkable group of women... wow.

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  6. I just have to commend you on this thoughtful and eloquent review! I wasn't sure if I wanted to add this book to my TBR, but you have definitely given me a large push towards doing so! You're a talented reviewer!

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  7. This sounds amazing. Your review has hooked me and I will be looking for this book. The women sound fascinating. I need to check out some of the videos. I do love Lisa See's writing, it is so lyrical.

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