Andrea’s Pick of the Week: The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

Lisa See’s latest novel is set on a beautiful volcanic island off the coast of South Korea called Jeju. Nowadays it’s called “Honeymoon Island,” but until the end of the 20th century, it was the home of the haenyo, or sea women. These women formed diving collectives and caught seafood to feed and support their families, while the men stayed home, tended the children, and did the cooking. Besides its unique matriarchal society, Jeju also has a tumultuous history. Occupied by the Japanese from 1910-1947, then turned over to South Korea after World War II, it saw terrible unrest and violence in 1948-49. In what came to be known as the “Jeju Uprising,” 25 percent of the island’s population was killed – and the South Korean government covered up the truth of these brutal killings for decades.

Jeju Island’s volcano

On top of all this, See layers a compelling, beautiful story of female friendship torn apart by circumstance. Young-sook and Mi-ja are two young women who become haenyo divers at the age of 15, in 1938. Their idyllic youth spent quietly in a beautiful village on Jeju soon evolves into adulthood marred by grief and tragedy. Yet these women navigate marriage and motherhood with strength and resilience, even as they grow farther apart. This multi-layered story also manages to be a suspenseful page-turner, thanks to See’s strong writing. With its history, lush setting, and fast-paced plot, this book will definitely go into our library’s book club collection. There’s a whole lot to discuss here!

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