The Island of Sea Women

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 19 Mar 2019

Member Reviews

This book is incredible! I really enjoyed reading it - while I was expecting it to go somewhere a bit more intense than it went, and parts felt a little over-narrated or over-nostalgic, this book was very good and I would - and have - recommended it to other readers.
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What a beautiful, haunting, and inspiring story! Lisa See never fails to impress  or educate me through her stunning storytelling. This is the story of two friends Mi-ja and Young-sook who Live on the Korean island of Jeju. Jeju is the home of the Haenyeo, Women who spend their days diving in the sea holding their breath for an unbelievable amount of time and harvesting shellfish and see creatures. This is a matriarchal society where the women go out and work and the men stay home and take care of the children. The girls spend their days in the sea waiting for the day that they too can dive. But this is not an easy life the sea is unpredictable and unforgiving. The island of Jeju was a strategic military hold constantly changing occupants. A tumultuous time in Korean history that adversely impactsed this peaceful island.

   As in all Lisa See’s books I was completely fascinated with the history. I am ashamed to say I knew absolutely next to nothing about Korea and why Japan or America ever occupied the country. I mean I knew there was a Korean war but probably most of what I learned about it took place on the television show MASH. The reality of it was so brutal. What these people went through was heartbreaking and ultimately it was a unbelievable tragedy that tour Mi-ha and Young-sook apart. These were women who had grown up together, dove together, traveled together, were pregnant together, gave birth on a boat together, and yet the politics of others destroyed their friendship. Some parts of this book were hard to read about as the truth often is. I think this was an important story about a group of people that deserve to have their story heard.
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Great novel, highly recommend for those who enjoy the genre. Will be recommending for immediate purchase.
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This is one of my favorite genres to read, so I had high hopes for this book. I was happy to find that I found it just as enjoyable as I was hoping. I didn't know anything about these divers and found it fascinating to read about. I think that anyone who enjoys reading historical fiction or about different cultures would enjoy this book. Thank you so much for providing an advanced copy.
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Lisa See never disappoints. This was a heavy read, but one I enjoyed very much. The characters were amazing, the story intriguing, and the relationships poignant. Further, I very much enjoyed the historical background to the text as well and I could tell that a lot of research went into the book, and it was done very well. I would definitely recommend this book to serious readers.
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I am fascinated by this choice of topic and now want to learn more about the haenyeo, female divers, of this time period. Perhaps the climax of the story read a little bit too much like a history book or perhaps my timing in reading it wasn't right. It didn't grab my attention as I thought it would. Overall, a good read although I expected more from a story about lifelong friendship.
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Lisa See knocked it out of the park again with this one. I am so in love with this. The attention to detail and the research that went into this story was phenonmal and being able to see what happened between the two girls as they grew tore at me.
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What an incredible story.  Lisa See has out done herself yet again.  Sometimes you read a fabulous award winning novel and hope that the author can repeat the performance.   I started with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.  After reading that book with my book discussion group, we rated that our favorite book.  Then with another book group I read, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.  With this group we held a in person FaceTime discussion with Lisa.  I was so impressed with her writing and her interview style.  She was warm, friendly and seemed to really appreciate her readers.  Now this was I thought the best book she had written,  but now The Island of Sea Women,  she has published another incredible novel.

This is book is such a beautiful story.  Not only do you learn a history lesson about Korea and what happened there between the Japanese and the Koreans during the 1930s leading up to the Second World War and the Japanese colonialism.  Then the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and afterwards, when the Americans came in and divided the country and the Korean War.  It was a turbulent time in the Korean history that I am sure many readers are unaware of, as I was,  until they read this book.

Lisa describes in intimate detail what it is like to be one of the haenyeo, women who lived on the island of Jeju off the Korean coast, who were females divers.  Lisa is very adapt at writing about the life of these strong independent women who go out into the frigid waters off the island and dive to incredible depths to gather abalone, octopus, and other edible seafoods that they sell to support their families.  When they age out of diving or are too young to dive, they gather seaweed and other shellfish at the water's edge.  In this society women are the wage earners and the men stay home and take care of the children.  There are so many interesting angles to this book.

It is all based around the story of Young-sook and Mi-ja, two young girls who become close friends, and follows them through their lives, growing up to become haenyeo, then as they get married, start their families and what happens when the war and other political differences separate them and challenges their relationship.    The tides ebb and flow driving them together and apart.  The waters are cold and the life is hard and Lisa See draws a clear picture of their lives.  All based on real events and people she interviewed, this novel is immersed in historical facts.
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It took me over three months to finish this book, and it wasn’t for a lack of interest in the author; this was my seventh Lisa See novel and interestingly, not even my least favorite. I wouldn’t say there’s anything ostensibly wrong with this book, and it’s not exactly a radical departure from the rest of See’s historical fiction: it follows a friendship between two women against the backdrop of a turbulent period in East Asian history (though here the setting is the Korean Jeju Island instead of See’s usual China).

But despite the tried and true blueprint whose familiarity should have been comforting, I really struggled to get invested in The Island of Sea Women. I think my main issue was with the protagonist, Young-sook (whose name I just had to look up even though I finished this book only two days ago, so that’s never a good sign). Young-sook and her best friend Mi-ja are haenyeo – female divers – and See’s exploration of this culture is as thorough as ever. However, Young-sook herself makes no particular impression, and I think it’s mostly down to how anemically drawn her character is: she’s a model haenyeo, so she loves being a haenyeo; she’s meant to desire marriage and children, so she desires marriage and children; she’s meant to honor her family, so she honors her family. She’s a collection of cultural values rather than a distinct person – a pitfall that I think See gracefully avoids with the protagonists of each of her other novels that I’ve read. I don’t ordinarily feel that she needs to sacrifice character development to establish historical context, but sadly I did here.

About 60% through the book, during a scene of a horrifying and brutal massacre, See’s decision to tell this story through Young-sook’s eyes finally, finally made narrative sense to me, but up until that point, I had been wondering why the focus hadn’t been on Mi-ja – an infinitely more interesting character for the ways in which she didn’t fit as neatly into the society in which she was raised. Their friendship is competently portrayed, but it’s missing a spark for me that I felt in so many of her other books, notably Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls.

And I think that’s the word I keep coming back to when I think about this book: it’s competent. It’s a great crash course in Jeju history for those of us who weren’t already familiar with the island. It’s an occasionally heart-wrenching story about loss and the inability to forgive. It’s just not spectacular, and it never quite gains the momentum needed for the most brutal scene to make as much of an impact as it should have.

All said, I liked this book but I didn’t love it, but I undoubtedly should have pushed myself through the rocky beginning rather than dragging this reading experience out for three months; and everyone else seems to adore it, so I’d encourage you to give it a shot if it interests you. But if you’re looking for somewhere to start with Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls remain my go-to recommendations.

Thank you to Netgalley and Scribner for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.
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Haenyeos are women divers who scour the depths of the ocean searching for abalone, squid and other sealife. They are the workers in their families, leaving their husbands home to tend to the house and the children. The job is year-round and these hardy souls dive even in the winter months. That alone is a stunning setting for a novel. The timeframe covers Korea during the Japanese occupation through the American presence following the Korean War.

Mi-ya and Young-sook are two Korean girls who become the very best of friends. Young–sook is an orphan who has been ostracized because of her dead father’s collaboration with the Japanese. For years the two girls are inseparable and they both join the ranks of the haenyeos as “baby divers”. Later in life they both are paired in an arranged marriage and their lives begin to drift apart. But one incident is too much for Mi-ya to handle and there is a break between the girls that cannot be healed. Many years pass and Mi-ya is now a grandmother. She is approached by a descendent of her former friend, but the old animosity remains even then. 

The story of two girls whose friendship is severed forever is crucial to the plot, but the underlying situation of Korea in the Twentieth Century is critical to See’s book. Like the book Pachinko, the Japanese oppression of Korea is detailed, but here Lee exposes the aftermath of Japan’s withdrawal and the American influence on Korean lives. This is new territory, showing how many suffered under American influence in their country. It is eye-opening and frightening. The book takes the human story of the two girls and places it squarely in the midst of important historical events. 

There’s so much to explore here. See covers cultural issues that are remarkable, historic events that impacted an entire country, women who are strong and fearless, all mixed in with the story of two girls who are hurt by betrayal. Another powerful book by an outstanding author.
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4.5 stars rounded u to 5.*

I think I am the only person I know who never read The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane or Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.  I'm not sure why I never did, and now that I've had the pleasure of reading The Island of the Sea Women I will definitely be moving these titles and everything else by Lisa See up my to-read list.

The Island of the Sea Women was brought to my attention on two different lists recommending upcoming releases.  One was specifically for feminist literature and the other was a list recommending books for those wanting to experience other cultures.  On both accounts, this book lived up to the hype and then some.

I will admit it took me longer than normal to finish the book.  Partly because I was battling jetlag, and partly because it is an emotional, heavy story.  it's not devastating or something I would expect would require a trigger warning for most readers, but it is truly a unique tale with one-of-a-kind characters.

The Island of the Sea Women is the tale of Young-Sook and Mi-Ja, young women born in a small Korean village with a truly unique culture- the women of the village are the workers, earners and dominant forces in the culture.  They are known as Haenyeo, and they are sea divers.  The majority of the story takes place in the 1930s and 1940s when the girls are young and strong and ambitious.  Their friendship is challenged by social norms, the Haenyeo culture, fear of Japanese collaboration, and eventually their own marriages, children and lives.  

Their story is heartbreaking and important.  Lisa See writes beautifully and honestly and makes the reader truly empathize with both characters.

I highly recommend this book!  One of my favorites of 2019.
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The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
Published 3 March 2019 by Scribner
4 stars
I received an ARC from Scribner through Net Galley

“The burden – the tangible, physical proof of my labors – felt like money, opportunity, and love" (See).

This is a story of family, friendship, and community. It is also a story about what can be lost in anger and fear. The story centers around two friends: Young-sook and Mi-ja. Also, there is a modern day frame story that adds a lighter element to the often-painful history of the two girls/women and their community.

The writing is excellent, and I was captivated by the women in the story. However, this is not an easy story. In fact, I started reading this book in February but ended up reading it in bits because at times, it was just too much for me.

Still, I loved the story of the haenyeo and how different the life on Jeju was than most of the rest of the world at the time (and even now).  Young-sook says, “...when I was a girl, I obeyed my mother; when I was a wife, I had equal say to my husband; and now that I am a widow, my only son has to obey me.” The men watched the children and did a little cooking, and they held any positions of power, but the women, especially the haenyeo, were the center of the family. Do-saeng says, “not many men can do without a wife, while all women can do without a husband.”  There are many comments like these in the book, and they elicit laughs from the haenyeo (and the reader). There is a feminist trail throughout the whole book, but much like today, despite all of the advances, there is still little equality, and that is shown in many ways throughout the story.

Overall, I really liked this story, and I think it will stick with me. I gave it 4 stars and not 5 because it was just too heavy at times, so that is my issue. I still encourage everyone to read it!
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A beautiful and emotional novel of strong women and culture. This is the first book I have read by Lisa See and it will not be the last. A book to be cherished but it will shake you to your core.

This book follows the ancient Korean Haenyeo culture on the small island of Jeju. For generations, Haenyeo deep sea dive for sea creatures in order to provide for their families while the men stay home to care for the children. Two young girls, Young-sook and Mi-ja, who come from very different backgrounds become best friends and their lives become intertwined.

I loved how the story was told from the perspective of Young-sook. The story shows Young-sook as she grows up as a teenager in the 1930's. We learn about her family and her experiences as a diver. We get to read of Young-sook's friendship with Mi-ja as it grows and is also strained by the tragedy of war.

Then we also get to experience the story told from the year of 2008 when Young-sook is in her eighties. She is still diving in Jeju.

Thank you NetGalley for my advanced readers copy of The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See in exchange for my honest review.
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I’m a big Lisa See fan and I have read almost all of her books, but somehow, none as captivated me as much as ‘Snowflower and the secret fan’. 
I have been yearning for that feeling of breathing and living the story.
As a fan of historical fiction, there is always a lot to learn in all Lisa See’s books, the research is stellar. She is a master at transporting the reader to a different culture in a different era. 
I have truly enjoyed learning about Jeju island, The Korean history and the matriarchal diving society that is the backbone of the book.

The story follows two of the women divers, Young-Sook and her friend Mi-Ja through an eighty years time span, during the Japanese occupation, during the division of Korea, through the American take over, during and after the Korean War to the present day. 
With all Lisa See’s books, the women are strong, their connections are deep and their falling out are life shattering.

My complains about this books are the overuse of words ‘Haenyeo’, ’Sumisori’, 'Bulteok’,’Grandmother Seolmunde ‘ which bored me a little, and the similarity to 'White Chrysanthemum’ by ML Bracht with excess sympathy for the Korean victims and the endless animosity between Korea and Japan still active today.
The book is a little slow going, but I found it engaging. 


I am very thankful to Simon and Schuster and Lisa See for sending me this eARC. It was a wonderful gift.
Publication date was March 2019.
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Thank you to the publisher for the opportunity. I NEVER take these for granted. At this time though, I will not be able to provide feedback. Due to personal matters, I am currently out of the country until September. Please receive my apologies hoping this may not affect me in any future requests.
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Lisa See's novel, The Island of Sea Women, is set on Jeju, an island off the coast of Korea. Young-sook and Mi-ja are best friends who are learning how to become divers, like Young-sook's mother. In their culture, the women are the breadwinners of the family, while the men stay home and take care of the young children and the home. 



Diving for fish (abelone and octopus are prized) can be dangerous, and the women work as a team to keep each other safe, but accidents do happen. Young-sook becomes betrothed to a teacher, but she is jealous that Mi-ja has captured the attention of a handsome businessman who lives in the city. Young-sook and her husband happily welcome three children into their lives. Mi-ja and her husband have a son, but Mi-ja's marriage is troubled.

The Island of Sea Women begins during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and the people of Jeju fear the soldiers. When the Korean War begins, their country is torn apart as Russia and China back North Korean communists and the United States back South Korea. See describes what became known as the 4.3 Incident, where Koreans massacred their own people, including many people on Jeju, while the Americans did nothing to stop it. It is told in horrific detail, and the losses suffered by Young-sook cause a permanent fracture between her and Mi-ja.

The book begins and ends in 2008 as a family of Americans have come to Jeju, now a popular tourist destination. A family of four are looking for anyone who knew a family member who used to be a diver on Jeju. Young-sook avoids the tourists in general, happy to just spend her time on the beach, but this family, particularly the teenage daughter, is persistent.

The Island of Sea Women"is the kind of book you get lost in, taking the reader to an unfamiliar world. See clearly did a great deal of research to create her brilliant novel (as her acknowledgments pages attest), and it adds to the authenticity of the story.

It is an emotional book, one that will bring tears to your eyes as you read about the inhumanity people inflict during war. But at its heart, it is a story of the friendship of two girls and what happens when that friendship is tested. This is a must-read book.
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This was my mom's very favorite author -- she was fascinated by historical fiction about the lives and customs of Asian women. I know that if she were here she would be reading this book RIGHT NOW and it felt apt for me to be reading it on my first Mother's Day without her. So this is a very good book about a group of women on the Korean island of Jeju who are called haenyo -- they are divers for rare seafood that they then sell to support their families. Their society is matriarchal and so while the women dive, their husbands care for their children and home. GIRL POWER! Unfortunately, what is a beautiful although hard life is devastated by the impact of war and the aftermath. There is a very compelling storyline here about friendship, loss, perceptions of betrayal and forgiveness. This is a very good read. Recommended!
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The author doesn't disappoint in her newest book.  Having read previous of See's books, I am always struck by the dearth of background knowledge and material that she provides.
The story centers on the Sea Women of Jeju Island in Korea.  The history of the sea women along with their family composition and traditions were fascinating.  It was especially interesting to note the transformation of the roles of men and women in their society.
The friendship of the two main characters, Mi-ja and Young-sook, encompassed so much by including the history of the country pre- and post- World War II.  I learned so much yet was also enthralled by the relationship of 2 women over decades dealing with the pressure of history and love.
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Early in the book, I wasn’t feeling the love but I kept reading because I have faith in Lisa See.  By the end of the book I was very glad that I had continued because it gives a wonderful history of the culture of the  Haenyeo and the island of Jeju.  The fictional story was very informative of the times as well as very tragic.
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I had read White Chrysanthemum and first learned about the island of Jeju and the Haenyeo from that book.  The Island of Sea Women is a fascinating story and describes the women and their families during the Korean war and afterward.  It's not a cheery happy book, the families suffered greatly and it wasn't easy to read about.  

A deeply moving book for sure, and definitely a worthy entry to Korean War historical fiction.

Thanks to Scribner and NetGalley for the ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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