Summary and book reviews of The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

The Island of Sea Women

by Lisa See

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See X
The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
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  • Published:
    Mar 2019, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

Book Summary

A new novel from Lisa See, the New York Times bestselling author of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, about female friendship and family secrets on a small Korean island.

Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends that come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village's all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook's mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility but also danger.

Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook's differences are impossible to ignore. The Island of Sea Women is an epoch set over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War and its aftermath, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, and she will forever be marked by this association. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother's position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that after surviving hundreds of dives and developing the closest of bonds, forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.

This beautiful, thoughtful novel illuminates a world turned upside down, one where the women are in charge, engaging in dangerous physical work, and the men take care of the children. A classic Lisa See story - one of women's friendships and the larger forces that shape them - The Island of Sea Women introduces readers to the fierce and unforgettable female divers of Jeju Island and the dramatic history that shaped their lives.

Swallowing Water Breath
April 1938

My first day of sea work started hours before sunrise when even the crows were still asleep. I dressed and made my way through the dark to our latrine. I climbed the ladder to the stone structure and positioned myself over the hole in the floor. Below, our pigs gathered, snuffling eagerly. A big stick leaned against the wall in the corner in case one of them became too enthusiastic and tried to leap up. Yesterday I'd had to hit one pretty hard. They must have remembered, because this morning they waited for my private business to drop to the ground to fight among themselves for it. I returned to the house, tied my baby brother to my back, and went outside to draw water from the village well. Three round trips, carrying earthenware jugs in my hands, were required to get enough water to satisfy our morning needs. Next, I gathered dung to burn for heating and cooking. This also had to be done early, because I had a lot of competition from other women ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The story begins with Young-sook as an old woman, gathering algae on the beach. What secrets or clues about the past and the present are revealed in the scenes that take place in 2008? Why do we only understand the beginning of the novel only after we have finished it?
  2. When Young-sook and Mi-ja are fifteen, Young-sook's mother says to them: "You are like sisters, and I expect you to take care of each other today and every day as those tied by blood would do" (p. 13). How are these words of warning? The friendship between Young-sook and Mi-ja is just one of many examples of powerful female relationships in the novel. Discuss the ways in which female relationships are depicted and the important role they play on Jeju.
  3. On page 17, Young-sook's ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Island of Sea Women will almost certainly extend See's streak of bestsellers. Every bit of it is as moving and intriguing as the other fine books in her catalog. This one will appeal most to those who enjoy novels about female friendships, as well as historical fiction aficionados. Also recommended to book groups as a fine selection for discussion.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Full Review Members Only (637 words).

Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Exposing the depths of human cruelty and resilience, See's lush tale is a wonderful ode to a truly singular group of women.

Kirkus Reviews
Although this novel's reach exceeds its grasp, it is a necessary book.

Booklist
Starred Review. A mesmerizing achievement. See's accomplishment, acclaim, and readership continue to rise with each book, and interest in this stellar novel will be well stoked.

Author Blurb Jodi Picoult, New York Times bestselling author of A Spark of Light and Small Great Things
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. This novel spans wars and generations, but at its heart is a beautifully rendered story of two women whose individual choices become inextricably tangled.

Author Blurb Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees and The Invention of Wings
I was spellbound the moment I entered the vivid and little-known world of the diving women of Jeju. Set amid sweeping historical events, The Island of Sea Women is the extraordinary story of Young-sook and Mi-ja, of women's daring, heartbreak, strength, and forgiveness. No one writes about female friendship, the dark and the light of it, with more insight and depth than Lisa See.

Author Blurb Kristin Hannah, author of The Nightingale and The Great Alone
I loved The Island of Sea Women from the very first page. Lisa See has created an enthralling, compelling portrait of a unique culture and a turbulent time in history...Compelling, heart-wrenching, and beautifully written, The Island of Sea Women will plunge you into a world and a story you've never read before and remind you how powerful women can and must be to survive.

Reader Reviews

Sandi W.

Lisa See delivers
I enjoyed this book much more than I expected. I probably would not have picked this book to read if it had not been for the book club. I had never heard of the haenyeo before, but then I know very little of the Korean traditions. This book not only ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Underwater World of Haenyeos

HaenyeosLisa See's novel, The Island of Sea Women, highlights the lives of haenyeos – women from the South Korean island of Jeju who support their families by free-diving for plants and animals that thrive in the ocean. They're known to be able to hold their breath for two to three minutes at a stretch and can descend to depths of 30 to 45 feet below sea level.

The women refer to the actual act of diving as muljil, and it is an art learned by each woman from childhood. It is a dangerous profession that requires an innate understanding of water pressure, tidal differences, sea temperature, and other hazards that could impact whether or not they have enough oxygen to return to the surface. Harvesting sea products in a sustainable manner has ...

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