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The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

book cover of The Island of Sea Women

For me, the best thing about reading this book has been learning about a part of the world and a period of history that I didn’t know that much about – Jeju Island, under the Japanese occupation and then the brutal, bloodthirsty dictatorship that emerged in South Korea after WW2. Fairly isolated from the mainland, Jeju people developed a distinct culture, more egalitarian and “matrifocal”, and it was interesting to read all about this.

The plot itself follows one woman, Young-sook, from girlhood right through to old age. As a girl, her best friend is a girl named Mi-ja, reviled by much of the village for being the daughter of a Japanese collaborator (although he’s now dead), but Young-sook and her mother don’t believe Mi-ja can be defined purely by her parentage. The girls’ friendship becomes strained after their arranged marriages – while Young-sook’s husband, a local schoolteacher, is kind and noble-hearted, Mi-ja is saddled with a cruel, abusive man who is another Japanese collaborator (and swiftly moves to serve the right-wing dictatorship once the Japanese are expelled). After a particularly gut-wrenching moment during the Jeju Uprising, their friendship is severed forever, although Mi-ja’s family later return to Jeju to try to make peace with Young-sook, as told over a series of flash-forwards over the book.

I did like this book, but I don’t know… perhaps it wasn’t the kind of book I should have been reading right now. Lately I’ve been shocked by the traditionalist, sexist attitudes some of my partner’s close relatives have turned out to harbour, and so the parts of this book that described sexist traditions on Jeju Island were painful reminders of that (even though Jeju women rebelled against them in many ways). In particular the part towards the end of the book where Young-sook throws a temper tantrum over her daughter’s impending wedding reminded me very specifically of my would-be mother-in-law. I also felt like the core plotline – the close friendship turned bitter resentment between Young-sook and Mi-ja – was quite similar to the one in another book by Lisa See, Shanghai Girls, and not really as gripping as the historical detail. It’s a good book (and so was Shanghai Girls for that matter), but I just feel like I’d have connected with it more if I’d read it at another time.

★★★

a cartoony avatar of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.