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  • Philip Leung

Two Lives Touched By History: A Review of The Island of Sea Women

Lisa See told the story of two sea women who made a living by diving and harvesting shellfish in the ocean, and how the historical current and cultural practices of Jeju Island shaped their lives and friendship.


(Image: Korea.net)


Jeju is a small tiny island in South Korea, located off the southwestern tip of the country. It was its own independent country (Kingdom of Tamna), before the Mongols invaded the island. Subsequently, the island came under Korean rule in the 15th century. For centuries, people on the island lived off the sea as they were mostly cut off from the mainland. In particular, women, called haenyeo, trained themselves to be amazing divers to harvest shellfish. This was all before the Japanese invaded Jeju at the start of the 20th century.


Lisa See launched her two main characters into this background. Young-sook was born into a typical haenyeo family in the village. Her mother was the chief of a collective of sea women and was well-regarded. Young-sook developed a tough personality as she trained to become the breadwinner for her family. Mi-ja, on the other hand, was born in the city to parents who were Japanese collaborators. She had a more comfortable life, but lived with the title of Japanese collaborator and was looked down on by the islanders.


In another parallel universe, Young-sook and Mi-ja would have few conflicts. The kids grew up together after the death of Mi-ja’s parents. But then historical events on the island - Japanese colonization, World War II, the Korean War, a dictatorship, and finally, modernization - changed the perspectives of the women, as well as their friendship, even if the pair were never in any position to influence these world affairs.


In this way, Lisa See created a historical backdrop that was more than history. It was concrete and directly affected our main characters’ lives. Reading the history of Jeju was suddenly enjoyable. And even though the island underwent a lot of changes in 80 years, Lisa See did an excellent job in creating a clean narrative while maintaining a good level of depth. For history lovers, this book serves as a great introduction to the island’s history. For those who are less keen, they won’t feel overwhelmed with dates, names, and historical analyses.


Some readers may be disappointed that the author never took sides in the great historical debates - Korea vs. Japan, capitalism vs. communism - but that may well have been by design: the main characters, the two women, showed there may not have been a right answer. The women were, anyway, clearly practical and were more focused on their families than politics.


Lastly, the author clearly invested a lot of time into researching the culture of this small island. Cultural practices - from Shamanism to gender roles - played out in a majority of the key scenes. It is especially impressive as the author did not speak the language nor had any connections with the island.


“These days it’s hard to find a haenyeo under fifty-five. They say that in another twenty years, the haenyeo will be extinct,” Lisa See wrote in her book. It seems inevitable that they will eventually all disappear. I am thankful that the author has left The Island of Sea Women as one perspective.