Meet my Island of Sea Women, the wonderful ladies of my book club which originated in Norfolk over 20 years ago. Like the main characters, Mi-Ja and Young-Sook, early on in Lisa See’s newest book, The Island of Sea Women, we have developed friendships which have shaped our lives. I am forever grateful for this group of women who make me laugh, offer thoughtful discussions, support one another and partake in activities which go beyond the realm of a typical book club meeting.
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Last week we gathered on Cape Cod at the beautiful home of our hostess, Leslie. Before we settled down to luncheon spread fit for royalty, we dialed up Lisa See for a Skype interview. AMAZING! Lisa was so generous with her time staying on the line for 50 minutes answering our questions and giving us insights into the background and motivations of the story.
To say that we all enjoyed the book would be an understatement. Lisa presents a rich history of Korea before, during and after the Korean War teaching us in 350 pages more than we ever learned in a World History class. Entwined with the history and events of war, she explores and delves into the depths of women’s relationships, including the heartbreak when those bonds are severed with irreconcilable consequences. The story details the culture and commerce of the Koreans who live on Jeju Island, namely the women who make up the collective of haenyeo, women divers who harvest undersea gardens of conch, seaweed, octopus, sea urchins, abalone and more. Diving in frigid waters throughout most of the year, without air tanks, they support their community while the men tend to the babies and children, cook and laze around the village center.
At the core of the story, we follow Young-Sook from her early years as a “baby diver”, a young mother and on into her grandmother years as an esteemed elder and leader of her collective. Themes of guilt and the question of forgiveness mark the pages as deeply as they mark the ethos of Young-Sook and her friend, Mi-Ja, until the reader grapples with the questions herself and tries to place herself in each woman’s shoes, walking down their paths.
Beyond the exposition of human psychology, Lisa also weaves in the mysticism of the island landscape and folklore bringing the setting to life as a character of its own. From the caves and natural tunnel tubes, to the underwater fields, you are drawn into the Korean world of mountains and oceans, fields and cities, relishing its raw beauty and power.
Our book club has also read Lisa See’s books, Snowflower and the Secret Fan and Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. I don’t recall we have ever read three books by the same author. From the sounds of the research Lisa shared with us of her next book in progress, I think we’ll be reading a fourth one soon.
I would like to thank Lisa See for another exceptional book in my favorite genres of historical fiction and women’s fiction. She is an inspiration as I continue to slog through my final chapters. I may try the insider tip she told us during our Skype call. You all will have to figure out if I end up employing the tactic or not.
Until then, I’ll just take a breath, a breath, a breath …
*****The Island of Sea Women
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