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  • Writer's pictureJoan Fernandez

The Island of Sea Women

By Lisa See

Cultural Epic of Friendship and Betrayal.

In our neighborhood book club, Joann held her breath the longest: 54 seconds! Still, it was far below the 3 minutes (and more) the haenyeo divers achieved in The Island of Sea Women. Based on a real culture, the haenyeo regularly hold their breath as they scour the sea floor for octopus, abalone and other ocean harvest.

This beautiful historical fiction novel by Lisa See traces the best-friends-for-life relationship between Young-sook and Mi-ja, two divers on the Island of Jeju, off South Korea’s coast. Set inside a matrifocal culture where women provide the family’s livelihood, the story impressively spans nearly 50 years (1938-1975) in which Japanese occupation, the Sino-Japan War, WWII, Korean and Vietnam Wars encroach into the island’s traditional life. Like tent poles, a sparing present-day timeline is inserted regularly. This break into the future gives just enough hint that the reader’s curiosity pushes into the next narrative section, hunting for clues on why the future turned out the way it does.

There is so much richness in this story. As just one example, See uses the island’s aphorisms to illuminate its culture. “The sea is better than your mother. The sea is forever” conveys the divers’ complex relationship with the sea. “Plant red beans, harvest red beans” denotes the belief that you can’t overturn the family heritage you inherit—a chain Mi-ja tries, and fails, to break free from.

Free will, lifelong friendships, betrayal and tragedy, forgiveness: All themes Lisa See compassionately presents in this epic work.

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