book review: The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

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THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN by Lisa See
★★★☆
Scribner, March 2019

 

It took me over three months to finish this book, and it wasn’t for a lack of interest in the author; this was my seventh Lisa See novel and interestingly, not even my least favorite. I wouldn’t say there’s anything ostensibly wrong with this book, and it’s not exactly a radical departure from the rest of See’s historical fiction: it follows a friendship between two women against the backdrop of a turbulent period in East Asian history (though here the setting is the Korean Jeju Island instead of See’s usual China).

But despite the tried and true blueprint whose familiarity should have been comforting, I really struggled to get invested in The Island of Sea Women. I think my main issue was with the protagonist, Young-sook (whose name I just had to look up even though I finished this book only two days ago, so that’s never a good sign). Young-sook and her best friend Mi-ja are haenyeo – female divers – and See’s exploration of this culture is as thorough as ever. However, Young-sook herself makes no particular impression, and I think it’s mostly down to how anemically drawn her character is: she’s a model haenyeo, so she loves being a haenyeo; she’s meant to desire marriage and children, so she desires marriage and children; she’s meant to honor her family, so she honors her family. She’s a collection of cultural values rather than a distinct person – a pitfall that I think See gracefully avoids with the protagonists of each of her other novels that I’ve read. I don’t ordinarily feel that she needs to sacrifice character development to establish historical context, but sadly I did here.

About 60% through the book, during a scene of a horrifying and brutal massacre, See’s decision to tell this story through Young-sook’s eyes finally, finally made narrative sense to me, but up until that point, I had been wondering why the focus hadn’t been on Mi-ja – an infinitely more interesting character for the ways in which she didn’t fit as neatly into the society in which she was raised. Their friendship is competently portrayed, but it’s missing a spark for me that I felt in so many of her other books, notably Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls.

And I think that’s the word I keep coming back to when I think about this book: it’s competent. It’s a great crash course in Jeju history for those of us who weren’t already familiar with the island. It’s an occasionally heart-wrenching story about loss and the inability to forgive. It’s just not spectacular, and it never quite gains the momentum needed for the most brutal scene to make as much of an impact as it should have.

All said, I liked this book but I didn’t love it, but I undoubtedly should have pushed myself through the rocky beginning rather than dragging this reading experience out for three months; and everyone else seems to adore it, so I’d encourage you to give it a shot if it interests you. But if you’re looking for somewhere to start with Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls remain my go-to recommendations.

Thank you to Netgalley and Scribner for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can pick up a copy of The Island of Sea Women here on Book Depository.

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15 thoughts on “book review: The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

  1. Ooh, interesting! So strangely enough I actually agree with a lot of this, even though I couldn’t put the book down. Neither Young-sook nor Mi-ja felt fully realised to me, although the rift between them made more emotional sense to me than the very similar incident in Snow Flower. I also thought See’s use of historical detail in this one was less clunky and repetitive than in Snow Flower, even though I liked that one very much (I re-read Snow Flower on my flight back from Sydney, so it’s v fresh in my mind – she must say that girls are ‘useless branches’ about a dozen times!)

    I guess 1. I actually liked having a conformist heroine for once – so tired of historical women who always rebel, 2. even if the characterisation had been a lot worse than it is, I was so gripped by the historical material than I’d have read on anyway, because I was so fascinated both by the freediving and the not-matriarchal but not-traditionally-patriarchal society.

    I’ll have to read Shanghai Girls now!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s probably worth noting that I read Snow Flower like…. a decade ago and that it was my first Lisa See, so even though I hold it up as this golden standard in my head and remember SO MANY things that I love about it, there is a very very good possibility that I’d read it with a more critical eye today. (Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy I read more recently so I still feel confident about that recommendation!) The conflict between Snow Flower and Lily felt very authentic to me at the time and I felt Lily’s anguish very strongly but again, should probably revisit.

      So interesting that you couldn’t put it down though since I was really dragging my feet with this one and it’s so hard for me to put my finger on why. Because I do actually agree that having a conformist heroine was not in and of itself the issue (and once we got to the meat of the rift between them I dropped my criticism that it should have been Mi-ja’s book, because I do think that conflict was more compelling and more complicated from Young-sook’s side) – I think I just wanted a better sense of who Young-sook was as a person? All of See’s protagonists have made a pretty strong impression on me but I think a month from now I’m not going to remember a single thing about her.

      But I agree that the cultural elements were riveting – have you read White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht? It sounds very similar and I’d love to compare the two.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Totally agree about Young-sook, I guess I didn’t really feel much about Mi-ja either! Young-sook came more to life for me in the short present-day sections, but I agree this wasn’t enough.

        I heard Bracht talk about White Chrysanthemum and added it to my list, but was put off later because I heard that the freediving takes up a relatively small portion of the book, whereas what I loved about Island was that we saw what happened to the practice over a number of generations.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I didn’t feel much for Mi-ja either tbh, I guess I was going off the overall impression that there was more to explore with Mi-ja’s character? But I would have liked some more depth to both of them. I think that’s what this book was ultimately lacking for me.

        Oh dang that’s disappointing but probably a good thing to know going in since I do still want to pick it up at some point. I’d love another book that goes into the same kind of depth See did, but with characters and narratives that capivate me a bit more. But the way she chronicled the island and culture over half a century was SO good. Definitely this book’s strength for sure!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It is a pity that this book fell short. I was looking forward to reading it after I read brutal “White Chrysanthemum” by Mary Lynn Bracht that also featured women sea divers. I especially wanted to read “The Island of Sea Women” because of the female friendship it depicts. I guess I will now be looking at other books by Lisa See.

    Liked by 1 person

    • White Chrysanthemum is on my TBR – I’d love to read it soon and compare the two! If it’s a subject that interests you I’d definitely recommend checking this out, as I thought the thorough and nuanced depiction of this cultural was the strongest element. But as far as Lisa See goes, I far preferred Snow Flower, Shanghai Girls and its sequel Dreams of Joy, and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Mere competence makes me want to smash things. Competence PLUS other skills I’m happy with, but if the best that can be said for a book is that it’s got all its bits in the right place… rahhh. White Chrysanthemum, by the way, is much less diving and much more rape. I read it and I’m glad I did, on a certain level, but it too is basically just competent, so if what kept you going through See’s book was the diving stuff, I don’t think White Chrysanthemum is on your essential reading list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Right?! There’s something almost more dissatisfying about reading a competent book than a terrible one. At least with a terrible book you have the satisfaction of writing a rant review – the ‘it was fine’ sort is just dull dull dull both to read and write.

      And that’s good to know, thanks – I still want to read it for a variety of reasons BUT I’m very glad to know what to expect from it. I wouldn’t say the diving itself was the only thing that kept me interested here and since I feel like I have a good grasp on it now I mostly want to see it as the backdrop to a more interesting story, which it sounds like that one might be (but maybe not, I’ve heard mixed things, and ‘more rape’ isn’t the biggest selling point in the world BUT WE’LL SEE).

      Like

      • There are some exciting bits (a whole section set on the Mongolian steppe, actually, which I enjoyed immensely); it’ll probably be worth reading just to get a different perspective on the same events.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review! I also struggled with the beginning of this book – I just wasn’t all that interested in the diving, but once that horrific scene happened mid-way through, the characters, especially Young-Sook, got far more interesting to me. I ended up liking this read, but thought the beginning was tough to get through.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It sounds like we pretty much had the exact same experience! That brutal scene really woke me up and I finally started getting into the story, but it was ultimately too little too late for this book to have made a huge impression on me. I find the haenyeo culture really interesting from a sociological perspective, but fewer diving scenes would not have hurt!!

      Liked by 1 person

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