(Thank you, Scribner via NetGalley, for the free digital copy to review. All opinions are my own!)
Sometimes it can feel like all historical fiction novels are centered around the WWII era. While I love many of those books, I was looking for something different. The Island of Sea Women is mostly based in the 1930s and 1940s and is about the Korean island, Jeju. During this time, it was under Japanese colonialism, so the residents find themselves caught between warring empires and in difficult and dire circumstances.
I loved this book for so many reasons. Any time there are layers to a story that aren’t immediately obvious, I’m hooked. The motivations of one person may not be understandable to others, and how does that play out when people’s lives are involved? How do you forgive a person that, by their refusal to help you, results in the loss of your family? Do they deserve to be forgiven?
Not only did I like the fictional side of this story, but I also loved the historical aspect as well. I know little to nothing about the history of how Korea was divided into North and South Korea, the impact of WWII on this specific region of the world, or the United States’ involvement during this time. While it’s not a complete history, it definitely introduced me to enough topics that I’m curious to learn more.
Another piece of the story that fascinated me was the henyeos. The women of this all-female diving collective are basically real-life mermaids. They can hold their breath for very long periods of time, allowing them to dive deep into the sea to collect abalone, octopus, sea cucumbers, squid, and more in order to sell (and sometimes eat themselves) to provide for their families. Because the women are the primary breadwinners, the men stay home and tend to the children. I found this so interesting given the time period the book was set in.
Friendship, forgiveness, and resiliency are strong themes throughout the book and anytime I find myself reading something that includes these aspects, I know I’m going to end up loving it. This book presents an impossible situation and it challenged me to examine my ideas of forgiveness.
There’s a lot to discuss in this book; it would make a great book club pick!