The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

by belinda
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Why did I choose this book? I have been a long time fan of Lisa See. I really have great respect for authors that do extensive research and then craft a fictional story that includes facts. Those are the books that leave me thinking. They capture my attention and make me perform numerous Google searches to learn more.

Summary (from

Set on the Korean island of Jeju, The Island of Sea Women follows Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls from very different backgrounds, as they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective. Over many decades—through the Japanese colonialism of the 1930s and 1940s, World War II, the Korean War, and the era of cellphones and wet suits for the women divers—Mi-ja and Young-sook develop the closest of bonds. Nevertheless, their differences are impossible to ignore: Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, forever marking her, and Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers. After hundreds of dives and years of friendship, forces outside their control will push their relationship to the breaking point…

About the author

In her beloved New York Times bestsellers Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Peony in Love,Shanghai Girls,Dreams of Joy, and China Dolls, Lisa See has brilliantly illuminated the strong bonds between women. These books have been celebrated for their authentic, deeply researched, lyrical stories about Chinese characters and cultures. Now, in The Island of Sea Women, Ms. See writes about about the free-diving women of South Korea’s Jeju Island. Booklistcalled The Island of Sea Women“stupendous… enthralling…and engrossing.” Jodi Picoult has given her praise: “Lisa See excels at mining the intersection of family, friendship and history, and in her newest novel, she reaches new depths exploring the matrifocal haenyeo society in Korea, caught between tradition and modernization.


My Thoughts…

I remember hearing about this book before it was released and I knew nothing about these amazing haenyeo. I knew I could learn a lot from the book. Young-sook narrated the story and we were able to watch her grow from a “baby diver” into the chief of the collective. All with the backdrop of Japanese colonialism then WWII, the Korean War and right up to the present day. I was so fascinated to learn about a society that all the women were the bread winners and the men stayed home with the children. There was no stigma to this arrangement unlike how it is in the United States.

The role of female relationships is also at the core of this book. The haenyeo spend so much time together and share their joys and vent their grievances with each other daily. The head haenyeo is like a mother to the baby divers while they are in training. She has to use her experience and good judgement to keep all of the baby divers safe while teaching them how to survive and thrive harvesting the ocean floor as well as navigate in their society. The bond this process creates is so strong. The relationship between all of the women in this book was incredibly strong. Young-sook is able to create such a strong friendship with Mija despite Mija’s family’s betrayal to the people of Jeju by collaborating with the Japanese. The relationship between Young-sook and her mother were such a joy to witness. These strong relationships make it easier for the women to pursue the sea work because they have each others strength to overcome the maternal pull towards their children.

I always struggle when I read books about societies that the women must make sacrifices of their aspirations or personal growth in order to support a brother’s education. I am of the opinion that there is so much more gained when women receive an education. But I also recognize that there are a lot of cultures that don’t share my beliefs. So I have to admit I was a bit annoyed when the women and even Young-sook talked about wanting to have another girl to dive to help pay for the education of their sons. Today more women of Jeju are pursuing an education and unfortunately as the elder haenyeo pass on, there will no longer be any female divers. So it’s not an easy decision. It is also a very skilled yet dangerous occupation.

The book brilliantly explores blame, guilt and forgiveness. Young-sook is one who we watch go through all of these emotions. There is blame on the Korean who collaborate with the Japanese and then the Americans. There is blame for the loss of heaenyeo’s lives at sea and lives lost on land. Young-sook has guilt for many things like her close relationship with Mija because Mija is from a family of collaborators.

To understand everything is to forgive.


Clara, recites this quote to Young-sook in the book. The entire book explores forgiveness. Young-sook is placed in situations where she needs to find forgiveness for many things in order to be free. Even the people of Jeju must find a way to forgive. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forget but to take the time to acknowledge the complex aspects of life, and move forward.

I am always curious how colorism affects other cultures. The definition of colorism is Discrimination based on skin color, also known as colorism or shadeism, is a form of prejudice or discrimination usually from members of the same race in which .. . people are treated differently based on the social implications from cultural meanings attached to skin color. It was interesting to me to see that the people of Jeju did not escape the grasps of colorism. The author touches on this briefly when she has Young-sook voice that Mija is pretty and how light skinned people are more desired.

I really enjoyed this book and once again am grateful that another book I own has opened me to another culture that I didn’t know existed. For all of the reasons above, I give this book a 4.5 butterflies.

For more information, please visit Step Inside the World of The Island of Sea Women 

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