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The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
Read: 16 - 26 September 2020
Release year: 2019
Language: English

This book was my Rare Birds Book Club choice for September. The Rare Birds Book Club gives you a choice between two books every month. You do not know exactly which books they are, but you can choose from two book descriptions. All of the books are written by female authors and feature women as the protagonist(s). At the end of the month, you can discuss the book with the other members on their website.

Lisa See's The Island of Sea Women is my favourite Rare Birds book I have received to date. This was a pretty hard book to get through as a lot of horrible things happened, but I think it's important that these events are told after being covered up for so long. I appreciate the immense amount of research the author has done for this book. Even though this is considered historical fiction, I believe we can learn a lot from this story.

The book is about the friendship between Young-sook and Mi-ja, two girls who live on Jeju island in Korea. The story covers the lives of the women over decades, starting in the 1930s and ending in 2008. Young-sook was born to a long line of haenyeo, female divers on Jeju who venture up to 20 metres in the water without any breathing equipment to scour for seafood. Mi-ja, on the other hand, is the orphan of a Japanese collaborator, something that will follow her for the rest of her life. When the girls are old enough, they are both trained to join the diving collective led by Young-sook's mother. The haenyeo's work is dangerous and some horrible accidents are described early on in the book.

Every woman who enters the sea carries a coffin on her back. In this world, in the undersea world, we tow the burdens of a hard life. We are crossing between life and death every day

The girls are almost inseparable until they are old enough to have their marriages arranged. Young-sook marries a fellow villager she has known all her life, while Mi-ja is married off to a Japanese collaborator. Their friendship changes as both families are now on opposite sides of politics.

No one picks a friend for us. We come together by choice.

The friendship between the two women may be the main story in the book, but we also learn a lot about what it was like to live in Korea at that time. The book begins in the 1930s, when Korea was under Japanese rule which ended with the surrender of Japan in World War II in 1945. As a result, Soviet Union (North) and United States (South) now occupied different parts of Korea. From 1948 to 1949 an uprising took place on Jeju island before the Korean war broke out in 1950.

I hardly knew anything about the history of Korea so this book was very educational for me, even if it was fiction. I was shocked to learn that so many horrible massacres took place and were covered up for such a long time. One such incident was the Bukchon massacre that took place on January 17, 1949. That morning, two Korean soldiers were killed in an ambush by rebels near the village of Bukchon. Two elders took the bodies to the headquarters of a local battalion, but were shot dead in retaliation. Soldiers went door to door in search of the rebels and gathered about 1,000 villagers in the yard of a local elementary school. The families of the police and military were spared, but the majority of the remaining villagers were executed.

The author based one of her chapters on the Bukchon massacre. In the book, Young-sook, her husband, her children and a visiting Mi-ja end up at this school. Mi-ja is picked from the crowd because she has ties to the police though her husband. Young-sook, on the other hand, witnesses the execution of her husband (shot in the head), her two-year-old son (thrown against the wall multiple times) and her sister-in-law (her breasts were cut off) before the shooting even started. Young-sook, her daughter and youngest son somehow survive this massacre. She resents Mi-ja and her husband for not trying to help her family out.

On land, you will be a mother. In the sea, you can be a grieving widow. Your tears will be added to the oceans of salty tears that wash in great waves across our planet.

That chapter was very hard to read and I was very sad to learn that this real-life event has been repressed for many decades. The book, in its entirety, was a very powerful read. The struggle of the two women who grew up on Jeju during that period, the culture of the haenyeo and Korea in general, the semi-matriarchal society on Jeju and the brutal history of the island. I applaud the thorough research the author has done for this book.

Fall down eight times, stand up nine... We suffer and suffer and suffer, but we also keep getting up. We keep living.

P.S. I absolutely love the cover of the book. Someone on the Rare Birds forum made me aware of this website where an amazing collection of photographs inspired by the haenyeo is published, including the one on the cover of this book.