The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
Updated: Apr 1
“If there is happiness at age three, it will last until you reach eighty.”
I love to SCUBA dive so this book drew me in by the historically accurate depiction of these incredible free diving women of Jeju island. My first, but not my last, Lisa See novel!
Set on the Korean island of Jeju, The Island of Sea Women follows Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls from very different backgrounds, as they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective. Over many decades—through the Japanese colonialism of the 1930s and 1940s, World War II, the Korean War, and the era of cellphones and wet suits for the women divers—Mi-ja and Young-sook develop the closest of bonds. Nevertheless, their differences are impossible to ignore: Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, forever marking her, and Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers. After hundreds of dives and years of friendship, forces outside their control will push their relationship to the breaking point.
The friendship between Young-sook and Mi-ja is just one of many examples of powerful female relationships in the novel. Discuss the various female relationships that are depicted in the novel and the role they play on the island.
The haenyeo are respected for having a matrifocial culture (society focused on women). Discuss the dichotomy of their responsibilities and freedom. How much independence and power do the revered haenyeo actually have?
Mi-ja’s rubbings are a constant theme in the novel. How do they illustrate the friendship between Mi-ja and Young-sook?
The characters lived through Japanese colonialism, the Sino-Japanese War, World War II, the Korea War, the 4.3 Incident, and the Vietnam War. How do these events influence their lives on the island?
Death hung in the air as part of everyday life on Jeju. How do the characters value the death that surrounds them?