On an island off the South Korean coast, an ancient guild of women divers reckons with the depredations of modernity from 1938 to 2008 in See's (The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, 2017, etc.) latest novel.
The women divers of Jeju Island, known as haenyeo, don't display the usual female subservience. Empowered by the income they derive from their diving, harvesting seafood to consume and sell, haenyeo are heads of households; their husbands mind the children and do menial chores. Young-sook, See’s first-person narrator and protagonist, tells of her family and her ill-fated friendship with Mi-ja, who, rescued from neglectful relatives by Sun-sil, Young-sook’s mother, is initiated into the diving collective headed by Sun-sil. The girls grow up together, dive together, and go on lucrative assignments in the freezing waters near Vladivostok, Russia. They are also married off together, Mi-ja to Sang-mun, who, as World War II progresses, is enriched by collaborating with the Japanese, and Young-sook to Jun-bu, a neighbor and childhood playmate. The novel’s first half is anecdotal and a little tedious as the minutiae of the haenyeo craft are explored: free diving, pre-wetsuit diving garb, and sumbisori, the art of held breath. As two tragedies prove, the most prized catches are the riskiest: octopus and abalone. See did extensive research with primary sources to detail not only the haenyeo traditions, but the mass murders on Jeju beginning in 1948, which were covered up for decades by the South Korean government. As Jeju villages are decimated, Young-sook loses half her family and also, due to a terrible betrayal, her friendship with Mi-ja. The tangled web of politics and tyranny, not to mention the inaction of U.N. and American occupiers leading up to the massacres, deserves its own work, perhaps nonfiction. In the context of such horrors, the novel’s main source of suspense, whether Young-sook can forgive Mi-ja, seems beside the point.
Although this novel’s reach exceeds its grasp, it is a necessary book.