In my review of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See, I mentioned the concept of how fiction can help connect readers to the facts. For a brief bit, I also discussed that if the author focuses on the facts too much, then it would start sounding like a Master’s Thesis. Not only would this alienate readers, but it would also cause them to not bond with the story as much. While I liked reading See’s follow-up The Island of Sea Women, I could not get into the story as much as I should have due to the over emphasis on facts.
The Island of Sea Women is about the friendship between Young-sook, who is from a long line of haenyeo (female divers), and Mi-ja, who is the daughter of a wealthy Japanese collaborator, on the Korean island of Jeju – a place where the women are the primary breadwinners, and the men stay at home. Despite their differences, they become best friends as they dive together as part of their village’s haenyeo collective. Their friendship is tested throughout many decades starting in the Japanese colonialism period in the 1930s and 1940s up until 2008. Forces outside of their control ultimately push their friendship beyond the breaking point, and it is up to one of them to forgive the other.
Don’t get me the wrong. The information that I learned while reading this book was very fascinating. For example, it was interesting to learn about the working habits of the haenyeo. They would continue to work even when they are pregnant. In addition, I liked how See explained the various historical events that impacted Korea and tied them into the story.
However, I could not emotionally connect to the story for the first third of the book. See crams a lot of information about the haenyeo, what was occurring on Jeju Island in the 1930s and 1940s, and the shamanistic rituals during those passages. While these facts were interesting, they barred me from being fully invested in the main characters until they received marriage proposals. This was disappointing because See did such a fabulous job of balancing fact and fiction in her previous book The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane that it made me wonder why she was not able to strike that lightening twice.
Luckily, there was one thing that made an impact on me, and it was the line, “To understand is to forgive”.
During one crucial part of the novel, a massacre occurs, and some of Young-sook’s family members lose their lives. She blames Mi-ja for not doing anything to save them. It takes Young-sook decades to finally look at Mi-ja’s perspective on why she was not able to save them, and when she does, she is finally able to forgive her.
I listened to the audiobook, and Jennifer Lim – an actress who has appeared in the Broadway show Chinglish and in movies like 27 Dresses – narrates it. As far as I remember, Lim does a good job, but it was not really memorable. The only thing that I recall from her vocal delivery was how she makes most of the women from Young-sook and Mi-ja’s diving collective sound like they were Asian versions of Phyllis Diller. This is such a shame since Lim also narrated Little Fires Everywhere – a book that I enjoyed very much in the past mostly because of her vocal performance.
All in all, The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See is a good book. The story was compelling when I finally got into it after the first third of the novel, yet I learned a lot on what occurred on Jeju Island from the 1930s to 2008. I sadly did not really connect with the story because See seems to consume herself with facts so much that it got in the way of the plot itself. I would still recommend this book to people, especially to those who are interested in historical fiction; female friendships; and reading stories about strong, confident women. If one has read her other books, I would also recommend to lower their expectations on this one.
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