Review Blog

Apr 03 2019

The island of sea women by Lisa See

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Simon and Schuster, 2019. ISBN: 9781471183850.
(Age: 16+) Highly recommended. 'A woman is not meant for the household!' Did you know that on the island of Jeju in Korea, it was the tradition in the 1930s for women to go to work, diving for abalone, octopus, sea urchins, crabs and sea slugs, bringing in their sea harvest to support their families? It was the men who stayed home, cooked the meals and tended to the children. The haenyeo, women divers, were expert at capturing their breath and diving deep, taking what they needed and living in harmony with their environment.
Young-sook and Mi-ja are two haenyeo friends, diving together. Young-sook is continuing her family tradition, diving with her mother, whilst Mi-ja is the daughter of a despised Japanese collaborator living with an abusive uncle and aunt, never knowing the love of a mother. Young-sook's mother takes Mi-ja into the diving collective, and trains her along with her daughter. The two girls become the closest of friends.
From the first chapter, we know that something has happened between the two girls. It is 2008 and Young-sook, as an old woman, is collecting algae along the shore when she is approached by an American tourist asking about her grandmother Mi-ja. Young-sook denies ever knowing her. Why does Young-sook lie, and why does she refuse to have anything to do with the visitors?
Whilst telling the story of Japanese and American conflict in Korea, during the 1930s, 1940s, World War II and the Korean War, Lisa See explores what it means to be close friends, the shared secrets, the jealousies, and the heart-breaking betrayals - for only a loved friend knows how to inflict the deepest wound. I think most readers would identify with that situation - when someone they cared about lets them down or hurts them in some way. But the mystery of what it was that divided the two young women carries the reader breathlessly to the very last chapter.
This is a really interesting book, combining a well-researched history of the period, with a thought-provoking exploration of friendship, and the bitter after-effects of being unable to forgive.
Helen Eddy

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