This coming Sunday is Mother’s Day so this week my reviews are focused on three books with very different perspectives on motherhood. Each offered something important in its own way and reminded me how, like so much of what women do, it is impossible to fit the role of mother into one finite slot.
The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
Published by Scribner
Publication date: March 5, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Cultural, Fiction, Historical
Off the coast of Korea’s mainland is an island called Jeju. There was a time when it was largely a rural and agrarian island, best known for its strong matriarchal society—the women working and the men staying home and raising the children. This was due to the haenyeo, the women of the island who worked as sea divers, going to great depths beneath the water to retrieve whatever bounty they could find to sell and feed their families. The life of the haenyeo and, in particular, two young girls, Mi-ja and Young-Sook, are the center to Lisa See’s new novel, The Island of Sea Women. The novel is a multi-generational look at the unusual role of women at the time, the life of the haenyeo, and the history of the island. Spanning 70 years it’s a fascinating look at a way of life that no longer exists as seen through the eyes of two best friends.
Mi-ja and Young-Sook meet as little girls when Mi-ja is discovered foraging for food on their family’s land. She lives with her aunt and uncle, who treat her as a slave, because her father worked with the Japanese. To everyone on the island, she has no honor and is of tainted blood. Young-Sook’s mother, the leader of their diving collective group, takes her in and teaches her to dive, just as she’s teaching Mi-ja. In this way, from the time they are schoolgirls, Mi-ja and Young-Sook are constant companions, even going so far as to travel back-and-forth to Russia where, due to the war and the frigid waters, their diving skills are highly profitable and earn them much needed money for their families. They marry and although their lives grow apart it isn’t until after the war, when Russia and U.S. are battling for domination in Korea that an event occurs, shattering a friendship no one believed could be broken.
See has a lot of ground to cover in The Island of Sea Women. The history of the haenyeo can’t be told without the history of the island and vice versa. For much of the novel Jeju was a Japanese colony and Koreans were treated as an inferior race. After WWII it became a political battleground pitting communism against democracy, leading to even more danger, deprivation, and instability. Through it all, See illuminates how the haenyeo stood out. Even during the war, they were not harassed or taken to be comfort women for Japanese soldiers. And, unlike much of the rest of Asia, the birth of a girl on Jeju was celebrated because it meant more money for the family. Boys were the burden. Haenyeo led their communities, felt blessed by daughters and passed their skills and wisdom in a strictly matriarchal line.
There were so many aspects of the culture, so much information about Korea and these tumultuous decades, that while See carried the story forward admirably, it is a lot to absorb. This meant some areas of the novel lagged, but overall, I found The Island of Sea Women to be a dramatic story of a fascinating island and culture and of how friendship can be tested.
The Island of Sea Women is my first review of the week on literary novels focused on motherhood and the many representations there are in fiction. The haenyeo were the antithesis of the Asian ideal woman—they were loud, unladylike, and were the head of their households. In a time before technology (fins, flippers, air tanks), they had a physical fortitude that was unusual enough to be studied by scientists. Lisa See is able to blend the facts of these fearsome women with the frailty of human nature to show how strength can sometimes be a weakness.