Book review

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

Review in 10 words: A story every woman should read. Heartbreaking, raw and real. 5/5

How to consume: In an ideal world I would have read this sitting on a beach on my first visit to Jeju Island. But instead I would recommend you read this book in a place you can appreciate the world around you. I read it on a rainy day with some soju.

Jeju is her home, an island known for Three Abundances: wind, stones, and women.

Mi-Ja and Young-Sook are as close as sisters- though they are from very different backgrounds they have a bond that will span their lifetimes.
The Island of Sea Women follows the girls lives as they work as Haenyo (women divers) on Jeju Island, Korea.
This book is a story of womanhood, family, friendship, war, colonisation and motherhood.
At its core this story privileges the reader to experience an incredibly unique culture and history. I feel lucky to have read it.

“You aren’t aware your clothes are getting wet in the rain. Day by day, year by year.”

My thoughts

This book has left me a little shell shocked.

I didn’t really know what I was getting into with this story. I had been recommended it by a friend shortly after I moved to Korea and I was keen to learn more about the country- plus I love reading. By the end of the book I felt a little ashamed at how much I didn’t know about Korea’s history- even just relating to Jeju. The island holds a horrific history.

Lisa See did an incredible job in both her diligent research and her story telling. The Island of Sea Women illuminated an entire world I was unaware of. The diving women of Jeju Island are now women I look up to.

Lisa encapsulated women’s experiences in a unique cultural and historical setting. Her portrayal of women’s experiences during Japan’s occupation of Jeju was jarring. In one particular scene (retelling the story of the Bukchon massacre) I had to physically pause my reading. There are heartbreaking moments in this book but there are also endearing representations of love and resilience.

See’s writing is immaculate and character development is made even more impressive when we consider the added layers of cultural and historical context she achieved through the story. It felt real and I think that made the story that much more memorable. I love that this was based so closely to the stories of the many women she worked with to make this book. I encourage readers to go over her “acknowledgements” section to see the depths Lisa has gone to honor the people of Jeju.

I had already been very keen to travel to Jeju Island- and now I cannot wait. I want to see the Peace Park. I want to see the beaches, I want to see the mountains.

I cannot think of a fault for this book. I will say I had to google some terms, especially relating to the diving and the equipment, but I enjoyed this as a learning experience.

I will also say that this is not a lighthearted story, it will leave you feeling heavy and having to sift through your thoughts, but isn’t that all the more reason to read it? We need stories that make us think.

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