ARC Review: The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

TheIslandOfSeaWomenCoverOfficial Synopsis from Goodreads: 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.

Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: 1938-1975 and 2008, Jeju Island, Korea

***I received an eARC copy of The Island of Sea Women from the publisher, Scribner, via NetGalley***

*** this post contains affiliate links ***

Review: Slow to start, but ultimately engrossing and enlightening historical fiction. The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See started out very slowly for me. Telling the story of the friendship of Mi-ja and Young-sook, two young divers, or haenyeo, on Jeju Island in Korea, The Island of Sea Women was full of new information for me, but the beginning failed to grab my interest. It starts out as Young-sook is living in 2008, and a young family visits Jeju Island and wants to speak with her about the past and about her friendship with their great grandmother, Mi-ja. Young-sook then reminisces about the past and debates on whether or not to share her story with this visiting family. At first I was quite thrown as to why this visiting family would be so insistent on speaking with Young-sook, but as the story goes on, it made more and more sense as we learned about Young-sook and Mi-ja’s history together.

Mi-ja and Young-sook learned the art of sea diving, and much of the first part of the book focuses on the different diving lessons and diving tragedies that occur, and while this was interesting, I wasn’t really drawn into the story. Yes, diving is interesting and all, but it never really captivated me, and I felt the characters were quite dull and boring at the beginning, and were lacking emotion. I did almost set this book aside because the diving and the characters were just so blah at the beginning, but then the Jeju Uprising happens, and oh my word, I was completely drawn into the book and the characters became so very real and human, that I was glued to the page! Talk about a complete change in a books direction! There’s an action (or inaction) by Mi-ja that tears their relationship apart, and I found the moral implications of these scenes absolutely fascinating. It also sparked a change in Young-sook, and I found Young-sook to be more of a realistic character after the uprising scenes. I was unaware of the Jeju Uprising and the atrocities that happened before reading this book, and wow, these scenes are absolutely heartbreaking and a bit graphic to read.

I love historical fiction that teaches me something, and The Island of Sea Women definitely taught me a lot about haenyeo, the Korean War, and the Jeju Uprising. With characters and scenes that will live forever in my memory, The Island of Sea Women is compelling historical fiction worthy of discussion. This would make an excellent book club choice as there is so much to discuss here from motives and characters, to the history and the skill of the haenyeo, to the wonderful seafood and beautiful setting of Jeju Island. There’s also a different religion that is focused on here, shamanism, and the beliefs and traditions are quite fascinating to read about. So while this one really was a slow start for me, once it got going I was spellbound and I think a lot of readers will love this book!

Bottom Line: Another captivating read by Lisa See!

LINKS ***the Amazon link is an affiliate link which means I receive a small commission if you click the link and make a purchase***

Author Website (there is lots of information on Lisa See’s site about the haenyeo and Jeju if you’re interested)


6 thoughts on “ARC Review: The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

  1. I feel like we’re dancing around each other with our reading! I finished a book about North Korea in February that taught me loads about that country that I did not know. In my public school days, we focused so much on European and American history that the rest of the world might as well have been a dream.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yes – I think the North Korea book review is the next review of yours that I need to read.
      I find it all so fascinating. I read another historical fiction book not too long ago, Pachinko, which started out in Korea and then had the characters move to Japan, and I learned a lot from that book as well! There’s so much to learn about the world!


  2. A fabulous novel and insight into a matrifocal way of life I never knew existed. Right from the first view of the photo on the cover I had to read this book and I wasn’t disappointed. So much more than a novel, a real celebration of a unique way of life.

    Liked by 1 person

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