Reviewed by Jowana Bueser
THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN
By Lisa See
320 pages. Simon & Schuster.
Haenyeo refers to a Korean woman diver in the island province of Jeju. Draped in cotton garments and equipped with basic fishing accouterments, a haenyeo confronts the depths and dangers of the sea with nothing more than strong lungs and lifelong training. For a great period, the haenyeo collective is the biggest economic driving force in Jeju, as they became the chief providers of their families and, consequently, formed a semi-matriarchal society. The fascinating but turbulent history of the haenyeo and Jeju is the backdrop of the latest historical fiction from Lisa See.
The narrator is Young-sook, self-proclaimed best haenyo, as she recounts her life, in particular, her friendship with Mi-ja. The story begins in her childhood in the late 1930s until her last years as a haenyeo chief. Interspersed are chapters chronicling four fateful days in her life in 2008. Young-sook understands her life is sketched in the sea – her future will be tied to the waters surrounding Jeju – until she met Mi-ja, a daughter of a Japanese collaborator. Despite opposing personalities and circumstances, Young-sook describes herself as a no-nonsense rock and her friend as a tempestuous sea, the girls developed an intense friendship and became sisters at heart. Practice and preparation have kept them safe from the dangers of the seas but nothing and no one has prepared them for the outside forces beyond their control as political and societal upheavals reach their shores and change the course of their lives and the contours of their hearts.
Lisa See, an author I first encountered through this book, crafted a tale that could be best described as “the personal is political” or, in this case, “the personal is historical”. The fictional life of Young-sook parallels the historical and political transformation of Jeju. There is such delicateness in her process that it took me some time to realize why the chapters I mentioned earlier were interspersed in such manner. The symbolism is apparent but the writing style is subtle. See is adept at keeping things in plain sight and delivering satisfying payoffs in the end. There is a confidence in her choices: the moments to highlight and the imagery to illuminate. Even the parallelisms are not spelled out but rather revealed precisely at the perfect moment. One historical point that played an important role in the story is the 4.3 Incident, one of the darkest in the history of Jeju. The Incident also transformed the lives of Young-sook and Mi-ja. Decades later, a historical marker opens in the island and once more has repercussions to their friendship. The relationship of the lead characters not only serves as a parallel to history but also an attestation that the personal is indeed political.
The soul of the story is forgiveness. The process of understanding leads to forgiveness. Or as one character puts it, “To understand everything is to forgive.” Something unspeakable happened to Young-sook and Mi-ja and broke their friendship. One of them closed the door to communication and left it without any closure. In the same manner, the 4.3 Incident is an appalling moment in history left without any legal closure until decades later. The next generation brought the necessary comfort and justice to the Incident and to Young-sook and Mi-ja. The moment Young-sook realizes the truth it breaks her into pieces. Earlier I mentioned the ability of See to skillfully deliver payoffs, this final revelation is equally satisfying and heartbreaking. She created a full circle for Young-sook from the first time the readers met her until the final page of her story.
The haenyeo collective is a proto-feminist girl squad. Though their social standing and influence are at times greater than men, their economic agency is still not enough to provide them the power they deserve. Their stories are not limited to dangerous dives because once they go back to dry land, they are mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives with additional emotional labor. In the perils of the sea, she is free and formidable. But in the safety of land, she is bound and breakable. The story of Young-sook and Mi-ja proves nothing is more potent than female friendship and that the secrets and multitudes contained inside the female heart is as infinite as the sea.
Limited copies of The Island of Sea Women is available at Fully Booked branches. Email us to request for a copy.
Jowana applied as a research assistant for Hogwarts but was rejected because her natural sarcasm is considered a form of dark arts. She has since harnessed her powers working as a social media manager for almost a decade. Books keep her calm from the madness and the sameness of life. You can find her on Twitter @jowanabueser.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]