Lisa See, is an American author of Chinese descent, perhaps best known for her novel The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, which appeared on the New York Times bestseller list.
The Island of Sea Women, her most recent work, was receiving accolades even before it was released. It was included in Lit Hub’s most anticpated books of 2019, and Oprah Magazine’s 25 most anticipated books for 2019.
I hadn’t come across See’s work before but when the novel was reviewed very favourably by several different book bloggers my interest was piqued. No more than that, the book jumped to the very top of my rather lengthy and ever growing TBR list. So keen was I to read it that, rather than wait for a hard copy book to come available through the review system at the library, I borrowed a digital copy. Yup, I read this novel on my phone. The entire thing, small screen by small screen, for the equivalent of 365 pages.
Prior to this year of reading from our library, I was a bit of a kindle fan. Still am. But there’s a world of difference between my kindle and my phone. I’m in no hurry to repeat the phone digital book experience. The app was clunky and frustrating. It was difficult to tell just how far through the book I was. And an App update (at least I think it was that) meant that at one stage I lost my place in the book completely.
It’s a reflection of just how gripping this novel is that I persevered to the end. In fact, despite the frustrations of the medium, I couldn’t put it down.
Set on the Korean Island of JeJu The Island of Sea Women tells the story of two young friends Mi-ja, the daughter of a Japanese collaborator and Young-sook, who is set to follow the family tradition as haenyeo, sea diver. Their story unfolds during the Japanese occupation and then through the years of the suppression by the Korean government. Theirs is a friendship formed despite the political forces of the times, and then tested unimaginably.
Both girls become divers. They travel together to dive on contract in Vladivostok. Theirs is skilled and dangerous work. Eventually, Young-sook and Mi-ja each marry, and things between them being to change.
The Island of Sea Women is more than a poignant tale of friendship and betrayal, of forgiveness and the cost of unforgiveness. It shines a light on a little known piece of history: the occupation of Jeju by Japan; and, then following Japan’s withdrawal, a long period of atrocities against the people of Jeju when the Korean government attempted to stifle a communist uprising.
As the story unfolds, first in the recent past, then reaching back to the 1930s, the narrative arc rising and falling and rising again, the reader is shown a way of a life steeped in ancient practices, away of life that has already disappeared.
Now, the women divers are old. The young women of our times have chosen a different path. There are few haenyeo under the age of fifty-five observes Young-sook, to no-one in particular. Jeju has become a popular tourist destination.
The ocean has exacted a high price. Young-sook’s mother drowned, her sister-in-law was brain damaged in a near drowning, her own body is ravaged by the injuries of a lifetime in the sea. Yet for her, it is almost a part of her.
“She settles into a feeling of weightlessness, her aches and pains melt away. And on a day like today, when her mind is in a turmoil, the vastness of the ocean offers solace. She hopes the pressure on her ears will squash the thoughts of the past.
I’ve placed a reservation at the library for The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. But I’m waiting for the actual book this time.
Here you can read the review by Claire over on Word by Word.
Here is what the New York Times reviewer, Tatjana Soli, has to say.
Opening sentence: An old woman sits on the beach, a cushion strapped to her bottom, sorting algae that’s washed ashore.
The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See, 2019. Simon and Schuster
Categories: On Books