The Island of Sea Women: A Novel

by Lisa See

Paperback, 2020




Scribner (2020), Edition: Reissue, 400 pages


"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"--… (more)


(389 ratings; 4.1)

User reviews

LibraryThing member riofriotex
Depressing historical fiction set on the Korean island of Jeju from the 1930s through the Korean War and its aftermath, alternating with the present day.
LibraryThing member Nancyjcbs
The Island of Sea Women is a difficult book. The writing is beautiful, the emotions and bonds between family and friends are clearly explained and felt. At its core it is a story of pain, anger, and loss.

But this is all set in a place, culture, and historical time I knew little or nothing of. I’d
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only heard of Jeju recently because a friend’s son was assigned to work there. Jeju is an island of South Korea known today as a tourist destination. In the 1940s - 1970s (when most of the story takes place) it is a remote island with many struggles. The sea women are haenyeo: deep divers who support and lead their families by fishing in deep waters. This matriarchal society is unique in the world.

The most difficult aspect of the book involves political upheaval following World War II. Jeju was interested in a united Korea but the leaders and American supporters were determined to wipe out communism. The book portrays fictionalized examples of an historical event - the Bukchon massacre. This reading was difficult. I spent a lot of time on google and was horrified by the details and cover up of this era.

This is not an easy read but it captured me and is surely going to be remembered.
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LibraryThing member Dianekeenoy
Our local library has a special tree in February where you can choose a book or video and purchase for the library in a loved one's memory. You also get to read or watch the item you purchase first. March 18, 2019 was five years since I lost my mother. She loved to read as much as I do and
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encouraged me to read anything I wanted. She made lunch for the bookmobile ladies when I was growing up in NC so that they came and stayed in our driveway for as long as we wanted. When I saw that this book was available to request, I knew that my mother would have loved this book as much as I do. The book came in dedicated to my mother and I got to read it. It was as wonderful as I thought it would be and the thought that everyone who takes this book out will see the dedication to my mother makes me very happy.
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LibraryThing member Sheila1957
The women of Jeju Island off Korea's mainland dive to support their families. Young-sook dives as a young girl with her mother to learn the trade as well as learn to take care of her family. As a young married woman she dives to support her husband's family as well as her natal family. Tragedy
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strikes at all seasons of her life and she learns to live with them and move on raising and supporting her family through it all.

This was a rough story to read. I did not know much about WWII in the Pacific nor about Korea. I learned a lot. These islanders endured so much. Nature can be hard but man is brutal. She loses some she love to the sea but many more are lost to the brutality of man. Young-sook had her pride and it takes her a long time to learn forgiveness. When she does, she gains so much. The story begins in 2008 then flashes back to different periods of her life. She is a survivor but what a cost.
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LibraryThing member GirlWellRead
A special thank you to NetGalley, Simon & Schuster Canada, and Scribner for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Lisa See's newest novel is set on the small Korean island of Jeju and is about female friendship and family secrets.

Mi-ja and Young-sook are best friends that are from vastly
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different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they become divers like the rest of the women in their seaside village. The all-female diving collective is led by Young-sook’s mother. Even though they are "baby divers," the girls realize that with this great responsibility comes great danger.

The novel spans several decades and is anchored with vignettes set in 2008. These vignettes that are dispersed throughout the story provide clues that move the reader forward, but at the same time, anchor them in the past. Beginning during the Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 40s, followed by World War II, the Korean War and its aftermath, and in the modern era which introduces the divers to wet suits and cell phones.

Jeju's residents are caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, forever marked by this association. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will eventually inherit her mother’s position as their leader. The girls have shared more than just dives, they have shared life's milestones and all of their secrets. But when outside forces turn their world upside down, it become too much for their friendship to survive.

The second half of the novel chronicles the 4.3 Incident. Named for the date it began, which was April 3, 1948, three years after Japan surrendered occupation of Korea, tens of thousands of people were killed. See dramatizes the atrocities committed by the military during the Bukchon massacre in a harrowing scene in which Young-sook loses both the majority of her family and her friendship to Mi-ja.

See's novel is incredibly rich in culture and history, both of which are marred by grief and a monumental historic event. Her writing is intricate and moving, and innately female. She explores the relationships between women: mother-daughter, sister, coworker, and best friend. The best friend dynamic is a particular kind of intimacy that opens you up to betrayal because there are things that you would only tell your best friend. In her novels, it is rarely the men that bring these women any joy. Abuse of male power is also another popular theme whether it be fathers, brothers, husbands, lovers, or bosses.
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LibraryThing member thiscatsabroad
A can´t-put-down read from a historical perspective. The plot tended to drag at times, and I could have done without the constant rechurning of the protagonist´s emotional state. Yeah, we got it: she felt betrayed. What should bbe a 5* is a 4*.
LibraryThing member bookchickdi
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
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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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LibraryThing member mojomomma
The haenyeo of Jeju Island have their own matrilineal culture in which women are the main family breadwinners and the men stay home with the children and cook. The divers train themselves to dive in the ocean for shellfish, abalone, and octopus, working in neighborhood collectives in which each
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generation trains the next. Being a See novel, we have immediate trauma and sorrow right at the beginning of the book and it doesn't let up as we see our heroine become first a "baby-diver" and gradually work her way to the head of the collective from the 1930's up to the 1970's. Women's particular culture is a common theme in See's novels and this is a fascinating culture to learn more about.
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LibraryThing member shazjhb
Excellent book about complicated situations and complex people. The thing I love about See is that I learn historical things that I did not know. Who knew about the American participation during the war, especially as they appointed Korea leaders because of their fear of communism. The consequences
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were devastating to the Korea people.
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LibraryThing member janismack
I did not know about the divers of Jeju Island Korea and that was interesting to learn about the women’s culture on that island. The main story is about two divers that are best friends but then something happens and they are torn appart. They both miss each other terribly but because of pride
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and the culture of the Korean people, they cannot speak openly about their feelings and what is happening around them. Lisa See always writes about asian cultures and I like learning about them.
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LibraryThing member Charlotte_Kinzie
The short blurb bit: Years ago I read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and became enamored with Lisa See’s writing. The Island of Sea Women is a beautiful novel based on the lives of women living on Jeju Island in South Korea.

The descriptive bit: Women feature strongly in this novel. In particular,
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the friendship between Mi-ja and Young-sook. They grew up together on the island… but were from very different backgrounds. Young-sook is the daughter of a haenyeo and will continue in her mother’s footsteps. The haenyeo and (now world-famous) women who free dive to unusual depths to harvest a variety of creatures and plants from the ocean. On the other hand, Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator.

My thoughts bit: It’s a pleasure to read about such strong and amazing female characters. Steeped in the traditions of their world, Mi-ja and Young-sook grow up strong and independent. They have the remarkable opportunity to grow up in a unique world in which women are the providers and men are the ones who are at home parenting the children. This book follows the intertwined lives of these two women from the time they meet at seven years old for seventy years.

Friendship… love and family are the themes in this book and it’s a remarkable adventure. Interwoven throughout the story are the losses and challenges that we face as we age. In the case of these two women, some may be harsher than what most of us have to deal with.

One of the things that I love about See’s books is how thoroughly she researches her topics. I always feel as though I’m being immersed in history. This book is no exception. I found myself searching out more information about the haenyeo and their amazing abilities.

The warnings bit: Obviously there are parts of this book that are difficult to read. These two women grew up in a time of great turmoil. There is violence, extreme poverty, fear and as there always is in life … loss.
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
I thought this was a wonderful book but I rather wish I had read it instead of listening to the audiobook. The narrator was okay but I didn't think she did a good enough job of distinguishing between the two time periods in the book. It was sometimes hard to realize whether the main character was
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talking about her past or the present-day.

The island referred to in the title is Jeju Island in the East China Sea off the coast of South Korea. It is home to the haenyao, women divers who use no breathing apparatus to harvest from the sea bottom. Instead they can hold their breath for 2 to 3 minutes, much more than ordinary people. This novel follows Young-sook, daughter of a haenyeo, who becomes one and her best friend, Mi-ja, an orphan who is living with an aunt and uncle on the island. Both become accomplished haenyeo but when Mi-ja marries she stops going into the sea for some time. Mi-ja's husband works for the Japanese who have colonized the island. The Japanese are hated by the islanders and so Mi-ja and her husband are viewed with suspicion. Young-sook also marries but her husband is the son of a haenyeo and he becomes a teacher on the island. While Young-sook's marriage does not provide the material wealth that Mi-ja has it is a much happier marriage. The two remain friends until a horrific incident occurs when the islanders try to protest the rule of the authoritarian South Korean government. Young-sook never forgives her friend who eventually moves away to the mainland and then to California. In 2008 Mi-ja's granddaughter visits Jeju and finds Young-sook, an old woman by then but still going into the sea some.

The novel is so well-researched that it seems like the reader (or listener) is actually there in the water with the women or sitting on the beach going through the day's catch. It also covers a large segment of time that included World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War all of which affected the islanders. It was a great way to learn some history while being transported by an excellent story.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
For the first third of this novel, though I was liking the story, I felt like I was observing from afar, wasn't connecting emotionally with the story. I was enjoying learning about the life of the haenyo and their diving collective on the Korean island of Jeju. A matriarchal society is rare, so
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that was intriguing. The friendship between Mi ja and Young Sook was just beginning, so there was definitely enough to keep me reading. Also this was my monthly read with Angela and Esil, and up to this point we all felt the same.

This changed rapidly for the rest of the book. The tumultuous years of the Japanese colonialism of the 30, and 40' provided a historical and brutal context. The brutality is just terrible, the inaction of the American troops who just stood by, the massacres that were covered up for decades. So much was happening politically that in the hands of a less gifted writer, this book could have been much longer. The friendship between the girls change due to circumstances that were so horrible. Each, though the other didn't know the full extent, go through some brutal challenges. It won't be until books end that we hear the full story.

The book occasionally fast forwards to 2018, when a family comes looking for Young Sook. Now I her eighties we see how she fared through the years and what connection this family has to hers. A book that will make you cringe, but eventually pull you in to a friendship that was special and the lives of the haenyo, these women of the sea. It is well written, well researched and the prose is wonderful. It is a novel that shows how much we miss, misjudge, when we fail to forgive.

ARC from Edelweiss.
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LibraryThing member delphimo
Lisa See always provides an interesting story, and The Island of Sea Women, delves into the friendship and history of female divers in Jeju, Korea. The story follows Young-sook and Mi-ja from the 1930’s to current times. The reader learns of the effects of Japanese colonialism, WWII, and the
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Korean War on this island and the island’s inhabitants. The friendship of the women and their fight against the bitter life resound in this detailed novel. The women go off to work in the sea every day, while the men stay home to tend the young children. The men are weak and not conditioned for hard labor. Lisa See portray the brutality of the Japanese in so many scenes with the mass killing and the stern rules for the already poor Koreans. The story displayed that adversity strengthens many people, but some succumb to the challenge. This novel entertained and saddened me.
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LibraryThing member AdonisGuilfoyle
This was a tough book to read - and review! I wanted to learn more about the Korean island of Jeju after reading Pachinko, and this fictional account of the island's haenyeo, or female divers and matriarchs of Jeju, and also the terrible atrocities of what is called the 4.3 Incident or Jeju
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Uprising, is certainly fascinating. The first person narrative of Young-sook is a bit dry, however, and the first 100 pages were a struggle; the straightforward third person of the 2008 chapters, or a standard non-fiction account, would have been easier to get through.

BUT. When the brutal facts of history took over the story, I was suddenly engrossed, and Young-sook's narration both matured and added depth and humanity to the recounting of events. I flew through the rest of the book in a day! The story follows Young-sook and her friend Mi-ja from childhood in the late 1930s through terrible tragedies to the modern day. In 2008, a Korean-American family find an elderly Young-sook on the beach, where she is still diving when her health allows, and ask her if she knows their grandmother, showing her a photograph which stirs dreadful memories.

The strongest story belongs to the real-life haenyeo, who supported their families by deep-sea diving for shellfish and even octopus for generations, while their husbands looked after the home and raised the children. These women are still diving today, although in reduced numbers and now wearing wetsuits rather than flimsy white clothing! I was also shocked by the Jeju Uprising in 1948, fictionalised here but based on witness accounts and a lengthy report. The South Korean police and ministry of defence have only just apologised for their part in the atrocities!

Definitely worth persevering with, to learn about the amazing haenyeo of Jeju Island.
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LibraryThing member maryreinert
Interesting look at the lives of women in Korea who are known for diving without equipment for the harvesting of sea animals. Centered around the life, friendship, and estrangement of Young-sook and her friend, Mi-ja. There is a lot of Korean history as the background of the book, but it was so
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unfamiliar to me, I had trouble getting it all together.

Basically, the women are very close friends and dive together. As one marries a man who has collaborated with the Japanese, they grow apart until one day during a horrible massacre, Ma-ja is forced to make a quick decision that will forever keep them apart. As they age and their children grow, things become more complicated.

The book is not told in strict chronological order but moves between the past and the present which I also found distracting. At times, I felt like the author was attempting to explain a life style,interesting though it be, through characters that are not fully developed.

Maybe it just wasn't the right time for me to read.
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LibraryThing member bell7
Young-sook is a haenyeo, and in 2008 is one of the oldest and last of those women divers who harvest from the sea around Jeju Island. When a family suddenly turns up on the island asking about Mi-ja, she remembers events starting with her childhood about her friend and sister of her heart, and the
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way their families were affected by World War 2 and beyond.

One of the joys of historical fiction is being immersed in a time and place, and learning something new about it. I knew nothing of the history of Korea, of the matrifocal society on Jeju Island, of haenyeo and the Japanese occupation of Korea, all presented here in a seamless story of friendship and betrayal.
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LibraryThing member akblanchard
Following a little-known Korean-island tradition, Young-sook and her best friend Mi-ja are haenyeo, females who have been trained from a young age to dive into the sea to harvest food. Their culture celebrates the strength, courage, and earning power of these women, but it is not a matriarchy.
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Women are still seen as subservient to men. As they grow up, the two heroines face multiple hardships such as the Japanese and American occupations, arranged marriages, and the untimely deaths of those they love. Through it all, their hearts are united as one, until a huge misunderstanding tears them apart.

Despite its intriguing premise, Lisa See's Island of Sea Women only intermittently held my interest. The basic plot (two girls share a friendship that is closer than sisterhood until circumstances tear them apart) seems borrowed from See's breakout novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005). I didn't find the traditional practices of the haenyeo easy to relate to, and the moral of the story came across in a heavy-handed way. Everything is tied up neatly at the end. Not my favorite.
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LibraryThing member Carmenere
In true Lisa See fashion, The Island of Sea Women is a history lesson wrapped in a human interest story.
Today's lesson brings the reader to Korea circa late 1930's. Koreans are living under Japanese control and wish for the day when Korea will some day regain there independence. Forward to World
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War II. Japan is out but through the spoils of war Korea is divided in half. The north to the Soviets, the South to the Americans. By focusing on the south, where Jeju Island is located, the author illustrates the horrific days of Korean independence with intervention from the US.
Into this turmoil, See, tells us the human interest side of the story. We are introduced to Young-sook as an 80 year old grandmother working near the sea. A casual acquaintance on the beach triggers memories of her childhood friend Mi-ja. Friends since birth, they are closer than sisters but for some reason Young-sook denies knowing Mi-ja. This is the catalyst which propels the reader forward. The memories begin......Young-sook and Hi-ja were haenyeo, underwater divers who helped support their families with earnings from what they harvest from the sea surrounding the island of Jeju. The somewhat dystopian lifestyle of a haenyeo is very enlightening, their story adventurous yet dangerous. What could have possibly gone wrong? The author will enthrall you with the details of their lives and you'll find you'll probably want to take a dip with Lisa See again and again.
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LibraryThing member birthsister
My fault for not knowing enough about Korean history, but if you were looking for a tale of female friendship in the same vein as My Brilliant Friend, you might find yourself traumatized as well as disappointed. It's much darker, more graphic, and not nearly as uplifting. It also has a very stark,
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spartan writing style that does not evoke the same lyrical sense as My Brilliant Friend. Not a bad read, but not one that should have made it to the top of the TBR pile yet, either.
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LibraryThing member TheLoisLevel
I gave up on this halfway through because the scope of the story is just too broad. The plot doesn't seem to hinge on the actual sea women very much. I normally do not like historical fiction, but I have read and enjoyed some of See's other books.
LibraryThing member niquetteb
The book was slow in parts for me, but I'm glad I read it. There is a lot of death and loss in this story of friendship which caused me to dread reading further at various points, thinking that another tragedy would appear. I enjoyed the strength of women in the setting and the truths of holding a
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LibraryThing member suline
A good book, by a very good author. I consider The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane still infinitely better. However, the historical subject matter of this story was all new information to me, so therefore held my interest through a lot of sections that I felt could have used better editing.

I think
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books like this should be more widely promoted, and not just within book clubs. There is a great deal of historical importance here. I personally always gravitate toward books with strong female characters, as it most resonates with my own history.
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LibraryThing member haymaai
In Lisa See’s most recent novel, ‘The Island of Sea Women’ the author attempts to tell the fascinating story about the female divers of the island of Jeju, off the coast of Korea. In this matriarchal society, she depicts the friendship of Young-Sook and her beautiful friend Mi-ja, as it
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transgresses through the years with Mi-ja marrying the wealthy son of a Japanese collaborator, and Young-Sook marrying her childhood friend, the local schoolteacher. See’s impeccable research is clearly evident in the novel, as she chronicles the horrific 4.3 incident, where thousands of Koreans on Jeju were murdered as the South Korean government sought to suppress any protesters who objected to the division of Korea at the 38th parallel. Although the author’s insertion of this historical atrocity was relevant, I felt at times that the political aspects to the story weighted it down. Nevertheless, I am appreciative to Lisa See for introducing such a devastating event, which still today has not been rectified.
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LibraryThing member rglossne
On the Korean island of Jeju, the world is upside down. For generations, women have trained as haenyeo, female divers who do dangerous physical work while their husbands raise the children. They organize themselves into female-led diving collectives and earn their living by diving for the riches
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that the sea has to offer: abalone, octopus, and other seafood.
The story follows two women, Mi-Ja and Young-Sook, from the time of Japanese colonization, through World War II and the Korean War, to the present day. They go into the sea as baby-divers as soon as they are old enough. As young girls, their friendship seems unshakable, but family circumstances, marriages, and horrific historical events force their paths to diverge. Lisa See’s strength is weaving her characters stories with her research and historical events to make a compelling read, and this did not disappoint.
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8 inches


1501154869 / 9781501154867
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