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The Island of Sea Women
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April 2019: History > The Island of Sea Women - by Lisa See. 5 stars

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message 1: by Amy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Amy | 9079 comments After wiping away a few tears, I found myself having an interesting train of thought at the end of this book. That it was beautiful book, even though it was laced with pain, loss, misunderstanding, and famine. That the story depicts strong women, bonded women, family legacies, deep friendship and affinity, women who carry an entire history within - and that the loss and the beauty were entertained. Immersing in the book was much like the sea they called their home. There was sustenance and loss, danger and vitality. With the message that we always carry a coffin on our backs when we dive, but to take care of and stay close to one another. That is the theme of the book.

This is the story of two friends, Young-Sook and Mi-ja, but its also the story of the Haenyeo, women who had a matriarchal-focused collectives who proudly trained and dove daily in sub-freezing temperatures, to learn to collect food and treasures to sustain and feed their families and entire villages. They kept up their traditions, their rites. They communicated with the dead, forged marriages, celebrated, and wept. They carried the history of the oceans, as well as the history of all the events, the massacres and the wars, that took their families away. And always it was about generations forward and behind.

The first thing I want to remark on - I have never truly loved oceans and the sea. I have always felt its danger and power. I enjoy immersing in the water and the waves, and I have felt its vitality, but always its cold and its danger. I do not care for things that swim in the sea and that is an understatement. I have always been more of a mountain and earth girl. Flora, deer, elk, and the like. I like my feet firmly planted. I have not wanted to fly, and I would find zero pleasure in jumping out of an airplane. But I love to hike, and as a kid I probably climbed a tree or two. I definitely dug in sand and earth and created things from wooded areas. I could probably use more of that in my life. But what drew me, as a foreigner to this water tale, but as a woman "in collective", was the coven like bond of the women, the singing, and sambusori (sp?) Each woman when they re-emerged from each dive took a deep breath, a personal expression - known as her song. I thought of it as the Breath of Life. And of course, if a woman failed to rise from the depths, of course she never got to return to the breath of life. These women carried babies, birthed them into the sea, and nursed them on the shores. Then had the honor of teaching their daughters to dive, and to respect the tradition.

Yesterday in my voice lesson, I was talking as usual about how to make the notes more smooth and connected, and the high notes less shrill. We have been jocular about how I feel I need a dramatic slide to be able to reach the high notes in our singing group. That it needn't sound like a gasp, an intense dramatic moment of childbirth. I kept thinking about the moment these women emerge from the water, and sing their song of life - and that a Breath of Life is beautiful and authentic - but has no place in A Cappella. My whole life I guess thats been me - starting with dramatic, and finding my way to smooth and connective. But I was very taken with the women, their bond, their song, their hard work, and what they carry past, present, and future.

The part of this that is deeply steeped in history, impressed upon me, but of course its less interesting, at least for my review. But I did learn of this previously unknown Island of Jeju, which strategically was not just a place of fruitful sea treasure and trove, but a place for which Americans, Japanese, Europeans, Russians, Chinese, everyone, could and did use as a strategic stepping point for war and Imperialism. The sea was all around them, but war was all around them. The massacres that took place, the Korean War, Japanese Collaboration, and the taints that remained... All of that was in there spanning the generations of the book. And of course the history and culture of the Haenyeo, a now died out way of living and being. With very little record. I had neither heard of known the term haenyeo or of the Island of Jeju. Which is why books are a portal to other worlds lost, or unknown. This was fascinating on so many levels from the personal to the political. One theme in there, and its a theme for women who were unusually powerful, and at a time, women did not hold those roles, is how often women were kept as divers, knowledge of the sea and creation and family, but were not encouraged towards education - a fact extremely important to Young-Sook's husband. Seeking an education was a different kind of exploration, and one that is pretty much opposite to the life of the sea. And seemingly, having both was not truly an option. Education was a kind of freedom - but it takes you away from your family and Island life. And it certainly marks your level, something that was subtle but clear in the book. I found that really interesting. And powerful.

One more thought about Lisa See. I believe this is her 7th or 8th book. I have read almost all of them, except China Girls and its sequel Dreams of Joy. I have often said that in my opinion, the books were great in the first two thirds, always becoming less strong by the last third, almost disappointing, usually by the time our heroines reach America. This one, like Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, kept my attention the entire way through. But I would say the final third was the strongest and the best! The way it got pulled together - the way understanding was weaved in, and how these aging divers coped with their dying way of life, and each other, and the beauty and the losses combined, was just a work of beautiful art, and moving tribute. I felt the end of the book had an unfathomable sea like beauty - that pulled it together for me. Very well done. Sea Kaleidoscope comes to mind. Family, friendship, history, culture, loss, betrayal, this book had it all.


message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

Amy, this is a wonderful review. What a beautiful life you have described. I have read about this book and after reading The Calligrapher's Daugther I have a longing to learn more about the women from here and their experiences. I was so touched by that story. I am adding this book to my TBR.


message 3: by Joanne (last edited Apr 03, 2019 10:07AM) (new)

Joanne (joabroda1) | 8108 comments Lovely review Amy-I had never heard of this, among other things I saw in last months reviews on Korea. So many books to read, so much more to learn!


 Olivermagnus (lynda214) | 2277 comments I read this last month and thought it was exceptionally well done. I enjoyed White Chrysanthemum last year but I thought this was even better. Great review Amy!


message 5: by Nikki (new) - added it

Nikki | 661 comments This looks great, thank you for the beautiful review. I've just finished White Chrysanthemum, so this looks like a great follow-up.
- I came here just after Amy's comment on a recent review of WC made me chuckle, so I'll just add that anyone who's been paying attention to the many reviews of it posted here lately will know what I mean... ;-P


message 6: by Joi (new) - added it

Joi (missjoious) | 3830 comments What a wonderful and thoughtful review, Amy. I'm at a mere 15%, so you totally passed and lapped me with this one.

One place I thought White Chrysanthemum could have been better- was the focus on the history and lifestyle of hanyeo- already this book is giving me so much more on that that I want.

Lisa See has always been on the good to great for me. Everything I've read of hers has garnered at least 3 stars, with my absolute favorite being Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which is a favorite.


Karin | 7301 comments I'm glad you liked it, but your review is so long I am concerned it might give away more than I like (it doesn't take much for something to be a spoiler for me). This is in my tbr!


message 8: by Amy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Amy | 9079 comments Karin, you absolutely do not have to read it. But I try really hard to give away nothing, for future reference. I barely give any details in reviews. I am more of an “ambiance reviewer.”


Joy D | 4199 comments Nice review, Amy! I have added it to the ever-growing TBR :-)


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