The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

photo of two haenyo The Island of Sea Women (2019) by Lisa See is a fascinating dive into the story of haenyo, Korean women who dive, fishing for sea creatures, and the matrifocal society on the Korean island of Jeju. Not being a huge fan of See, it took me awhile to get into this novel. Even though I was not caught up in the book’s main relationship, a friendship between two haenyo Young-sook and Mi-Ja, I read with interest about the Jeju uprising from April 1948 – May 1949, a protest to the government’s division of Korea, in which approximately 10% of the island’s population died. Another large segment of the population immigrated to Japan thereafter. An historical fiction novel based firmly in Korea’s recent history.

My utter lack of knowledge about this April 4 event on Jeju is somewhat like the Armenia genocide or the famine in Soviet Russia, large scale tragedies somewhat downplayed in traditional histories. See’s novels often revolve around a little-known aspect of history or geography and her own books such as The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane are likely the best read-alikes if you enjoy this one. If interested in Korea, try the following authors; Chang-rae Lee, Min Jin Lee and Han Kang. Photos of haenyo are available in this New Yorker article.