The Island of Sea Women by Lisa Lee is the first powerful and captivating book that I read this year.
The novel is about haenyeo and female friendship. Haenyeo are sea divers and they belong to a matrifocal society, where the women provide for their families. Husbands stay at home, cook and take care of children, while women sell the captured sea creatures and earn their livelihood. The novel is set in Jeju Island when it was occupied by Japanese and later by Americans and was ravaged by violence.
The friendship between Mija and Young-sook is the key element of the novel. They grow up together, train as haenyeo, and get separated after their marriages, but keep in touch occasionally. Mija indirectly causes irreparable loss to Young-sook and they turn from best friends to enemies. Will Young-sook forgive Mija? Why did Mija act the way she did? These two questions drive the novel. I did not expect so much violence and See paints a picture that haunts you long after you put the book down.
The novel is like a rich layered chocolate cake with multiple layers of the culture of Jeju island, training and customs of haenyeo, violence on the island due to occupation by Japanese and Americans, family and friendship.
A must-read novel by See, but it is not for the weak-hearted.