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.

top 5 tuesday: My Most-Read Authors

Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the fantastic Bionic Bookworm.  This week’s topic:

OCTOBER 3 – Top 5 most read authors

5. George R. R. Martin (5)

I love this series and can’t wait for The Winds of Winter.  I enjoyed all of these with the exception of ADWD which really dragged for me.  Anyway… highly recommended!  You don’t need to be a big fantasy fan to enjoy these.  I’m certainly not.

Favorite to least favorite: A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Dance With Dragons.

4. Lisa See (6)

Lisa See is one of my favorite historical fiction writers.  Each of her novels is set in a different period and location in Chinese history, and they’re all thoroughly researched and richly detailed, so I’ve learned a ton from reading her.  And they’re also entertaining as hell.  The one exception was China Dolls, which was a major flop – otherwise, I’d highly recommend checking out any of her novels if you aren’t already familiar with her.

Favorite to least favorite: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Shanghai Girls, Dreams of Joy, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Peony in Love, China Dolls.

3. Kazuo Ishiguro (7)

I was OBSESSED with Ishiguro when I was a teen… he was probably one of the first adult fiction writers that I discovered outside of school, and I flew through all of his novels.  The Buried Giant was a major letdown when it was published a few years ago – I’m hoping he goes in a different direction with the next novel he writes.  Anyway.  Never Let Me Go is one of my favorite novels of all time and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Though any of these are worth checking out – except, The Unconsoled would not be a good place to start with him.

Favorite to least favorite: Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day, A Pale View of Hills, When We Were Orphans, The Unconsoled, An Artist of the Floating World, The Buried Giant.

2. J.K. Rowling (13)

Obviously.

Favorite to least favorite: Harry Potter*, The Cuckoo’s Calling, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, The Silkworm, The Casual Vacancy, Quidditch Through the Ages, The Tales of Beedle the Bard.

* Order of the Phoenix, Goblet of Fire, Deathly Hallows, Chamber of Secrets, Prisoner of Azkaban, Sorcerer’s Stone, Half-Blood Prince.

1. Jodi Picoult (13)

DON’T LAUGH AT ME I went through a major Jodi Picoult phase when I was like 15.  Anyway.  I’m giving her the #1 spot over JKR even though they’re technically tied because all of these are actual novels.

Favorite to least favorite (take this with a pretty massive grain of salt after the first couple, because it’s been a decade since I read most of these and they all kind of blur together): The Pact, Second Glance, Salem Falls, My Sister’s Keeper, Nineteen Minutes, Handle with Care, House Rules, The Tenth Circle, Keeping Faith, Change of Heart, Plain Truth, Picture Perfect, Harvesting the Heart.

Darn, if only I had read Career of Evil before posting this J.K. Rowling could have won… oh well.  I will be working diligently to dethrone Jodi Picoult in upcoming months.  I have a feeling that Agatha Christie is eventually going to be the winner, but as of now I’ve only read four of her novels.

Who’s your most read author?  Comment and let me know!

top 5 wednesday: Books that Aren’t Set in the Western World

Top Five Wednesday was created by Lainey from gingerreadslainey and is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Check out the goodreads group to learn more.

July 19th: Books That Aren’t Set In/Inspired By The Western World

I love this topic.  For whatever reason I’ve had a really strong interest in books set in East Asia for as long as I can remember.  I didn’t have to look further than my ‘east asia’ shelf on Goodreads for this topic, so my list isn’t going to be very broad geographically (I realize ‘non-Western’ encompasses a much wider area), but I’ve selected a couple of my favorites set in Korea, Japan, and China.  Here they are:

29983711Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: I haven’t stopped talking about this book since I read it in February, and with good reason.  This is an outstanding family saga set against the backdrop of Japan’s annexation of Korea in the early 20th century.  It features a handful of Korean characters who face an onslaught of discrimination when forced to relocate to Japan.  This is not only an incredibly moving story, but a really educational read.  Min Jin Lee integrates historical detail into her narrative with masterful precision – it never overwhelms, but still constantly edifies the reader.  I highly recommend this to anyone interested in the complicated history of Japanese-Korean relations, the history of either of those countries, or just anyone looking for an entertaining family saga.

41nsvhy8t2bl-_sx322_bo1204203200_The Vegetarian by Han Kang: Korean writer Han Kang made waves when her first novel to be translated into English, The Vegetarian, won the Man Booker International award last year.  This novel is outstanding and thought-provoking.  It raises questions about gender and sexuality, a woman’s role in society, social norms, violence – in a lot of ways this novel offers generalized insights into the human experience, but in other ways, context is key.  You can’t remove this novel from its contemporary South Korean setting, especially as Han Kang’s own experience growing up in Gwangju was such a heavy influence on the content of this novel.  She goes onto explore the 1980 Gwangju uprising in a much more tangible way in her novel Human Acts, but The Vegetarian offers a much more abstract meditation on similar themes.  I highly recommend both novels.

18169712Three Souls by Janie Chang: Admittedly, I didn’t like this book as much as I liked the rest on this list.  I had a lot of nitpicky problems with it, but I still found it entertaining and incredibly informative.  Set in 1935 China, this provocative novel follows the journey of a young woman called Leiyin – except, the twist is that the novel begins moments after Leiyin’s death.  We follow Leiyin in the afterlife and get flashbacks to her childhood, and eventually adulthood – and we find out how she died.  The reason I’m including this novel on my list even though I didn’t love it was that I think it’s a really phenomenal look at the sociopolitical climate of mid 20th century China, and I recommend it more from a historical rather than a literary perspective.

1103Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See: Lisa See is one of my favorite historical fiction writers, and I think Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is one of her strongest novels. Set in nineteenth century China, Snow Flower is a devastating story about a friendship between two young women.  It features the writing system nu shu, which was developed by Chinese women in the Hunan province to communicate with one another, as they were often denied a formal education.  In typical Lisa See fashion, she both educates and entertains with this novel, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Chinese history.  (Beware of very graphic descriptions of foot binding, though.)  My favorite Lisa See novel (though it’s a toss up with Snow Flower) may have to be Shanghai Girls, but as it’s partially set in California, it doesn’t fit the category.

13640447After Dark by Haruki Murakami: And finally, it seemed requisite to include a Murakami on this list.  After Dark is actually my favorite of his novels that I’ve read, though it’s a lot shorter than the novels which are often associated with him.  So if you haven’t read Murakami but are curious about his writing style without wanting to commit to a 500 page book, After Dark is a great place to start.  After Dark takes place in the span of one night, between the hours of midnight and dawn in Tokyo and follows an eclectic group of characters.  It’s a very mesmerizing and atmospheric novel which draws the reader into Tokyo nightlife in an almost voyeuristic way.

What are some of your favorite non-Western novels?  And have you read any of these?  Comment and let me know!

book review: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

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The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

 US pub date: March 21, 2017

★★★★☆

I’ve been a huge fan of Lisa See for years. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Shanghai Girls, and Dreams of Joy are some of my all-time favorite historical fiction novels. But then in 2014 she came out with China Dolls which many, myself included, considered a massive disappointment and not at all up to her usual standard. As this is the first novel she’s published since then, it was with both excitement and trepidation that I approached The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. Was China Dolls a random flop, or an indication of a new direction in her writing?

Well, it’s safe to breathe a sigh of relief, because Lisa See is back, with this compulsively readable tale of a Chinese girl from a southeastern hill tribe, who gives her baby up for adoption after giving birth out of wedlock.

My favorite thing about Lisa See’s novels is her unerring attention to detail and her skill at immersing the reader in different periods and locations throughout Chinese history. In this case, the novel begins in 1988, and our narrator Li-yan is a member of the Akha tribe – a ethnic group that I knew absolutely nothing about before picking up this novel. Lisa See sheds light onto their rich history and culture in a way that’s both engrossing and sensitive. She also delves into a lot of other subjects that I now know much more about than I did a week ago: the history of pu’er tea, Chinese land ownership laws in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, the shifting growth of the international tea economy. This was a very illuminating read on multiple levels, and the historical elements weave seamlessly through Li-yan’s narrative. Though Li-yan begins the story as a bright young girl with a promising future in academia, a series of difficult choices leads her to hardship early on in her life, which only serves to fortify her character as the story continues. Meanwhile we catch glimpses of Li-yan’s daughter, Haley, who grows up searching for answers about the identity of her birth parents and her heritage. It’s a captivating, moving story, which keeps the reader constantly engaged despite its length, and although its footing falters somewhat around the 60% mark, it culminates in an ultimately gratifying conclusion.

4 stars instead of 5 because I wasn’t completely satisfied with See’s prose this time around. One sort of awkward characteristic of her writing is a tendency to favor authenticity over poetic license – let’s take the most obvious example, “doing the intercourse.” Is this a more direct translation than “having sex” from the Akha’s Sino-Tibetan language? I actually have no idea. Probably. I trust Lisa See’s research skills. But the awkward translation also lends a slight sense of absurdity to See’s otherwise solid prose, as do the abundance of exclamation points and the frequent interjection waaa! in the middle of the narrator’s thoughts.

For the full Lisa See experience, I cannot recommend Snow Flower and/or Shanghai Girls/Dreams of Joy highly enough. But if prose isn’t the make it or break it factor for you (and I will stress that it wasn’t bad, just not quite up to the standard that I know See is capable of), The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane has a lot to offer. It’s a richly detailed story that spans several decades and multiple locations, both in southeast China and America; it’s a story about the strength born from suffering and the reconciliation of innovation and tradition, told in a fascinating and unique historical narrative.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you Netgalley, Scribner, and Lisa See.

+ link to review on goodreads