Desert Isle Keeper
The Island of Sea Women
Lisa See – novelist of well-researched and sometimes amazing, sometimes infuriating novels like Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, China Girls, Dreams of Joy and Shanghai Girls – returns with The Island of Sea Women, a beautiful and heartbreaking tale about two lifelong friends who become part of the legendary all-female diving collective known as the haenyeo.
Hard working young Han Mi-ja and self-sufficient Kim Young-sook have known one another since they were seven years old – and also know that someday they, too, will become the haenyeo, specially-trained deep sea divers working off the coast of the South Korean island, Jeju. The haenyeo are responsible for the financial survival of their entire home town as they work to retrieve octopi and urchins, abalone and the precious pearls that grow within them, far beneath the surface of the ocean and upon its sandy floor. It is a job that is dangerous, well-respected, and often passed down the line from grandmothers to mothers to daughters.
Mi-ja, an orphan who suffers due to her late father’s collaboration with the Japanese during Korea’s occupation soon becomes a quasi-sister to Young-sook, paid otherwise to do chores in their field and garden when no one else in the neighborhood will employ her. As they become adolescents, they take their place as baby divers, and are bonded by more than their dives; by then there are several secrets that lie between them, deepening their sisterhood, which becomes even more vital to both of them when Young-sook’s mother dies in a tragic accident.
Young-sook thinks she’ll never dive again, but money ultimately drives her back to the sea – and to Russia, where she and Mi-ja begin building reputations for themselves, diving deep and for great amounts of time in frigid waters and dreaming wistfully of the husbands they might attract. Young-sook soon becomes as adept as her mother was in plumbing the fruitful ocean floor for its treasures. When the two girls reach maturity, they are contracted into marriages with spouses whose choice of life, locale and politics ultimately force them in different directions – and bring them back together. This push-pull friction between the new Korea rising from the ashes of World War II and the friendship they cling to lead to a tragedy so deep they don’t speak for decades.
As the novel sweeps us back and forth in time from various points in time from the 1930s to 2008, covering decades in the girls’ lives and decades of South Korean history from its colonial period through to its busy modern era, the girls struggle with the sins of their parents, the difficulties of their destined fields, the delights and annoyances of wifehood and the pain of growing up. What could have driven two such close chums apart? Will the rift be healed before it’s too late? And is Mi-ja’s spirited, fully Americanized great granddaughter Clara destined to be the ultimate center of healing for them all?
The Island of Sea Women is a beautiful and yet brutal novel. I can’t deny that See is at the peak of her craft here; she paints a beautiful, lush portrait of the world of the haenyeo, and takes us right to the very core of a time in Korean history that is rarely spoken of or chronicled for western eyes. You can live in this novel, sip it like tea, drink it like broth.
The themes are typical of Lisa See’s writing; two girls form a strong friendship that is near to a sisterhood, only to have their worlds ripped apart by betrayal of one for what seems like selfish means and an infamous tragedy. This book, like many of her others, contains themes of spousal abuse, rape and violent murder. The atmosphere and narrative voice successfully differentiate well from the rest of this author’s œuvre. I loved Young-sook’s grandmother, and Young-sook herself springs from the novel fully formed, stubborn, strong, fragile, self-reliant, morning and clever, and the uber-modern Claire is a delight.
But the book’s biggest flaw is one that’s rippled across See’s work from the very beginning – a pattern of overwhelming her characters’ lives with melodramatic tragedy that’s so over the top it detracts from the beautiful spare reality of the lives she’s woven so carefully for them. Whenever the plot sags, it’s time for someone to die or suffer. It’s not enough to lose one parent when a character can lose both, and do so violently; it’s not enough to starve when you can be caught rooting in the garbage by your best friend. Sometimes this can be a bit much.
Yet The Island of Sea Women, is compelled by such great intensity, pushing it along like a current rippling across the ocean’s face. It compels and beguiles and captures the reader, even if it does occasionally feel too familiar a See story.