The duration of the novel is 70 years, from 1938 to 2008. Young-sook, an 85-year-old woman living in Jeju, is approached by an American woman who has a picture of her grandmother Mi-ja who was also from the island. Young-sook denies knowing Mi-ja and flees from the family. The narrative then flashes back to the past where Young-sook and Mi-ja, girls from very different backgrounds, become inseparable friends and diving partners. They even travel to Vladivostok to dive there before marriages are arranged for them and they begin families on Jeju. Much of the interest in the book lies in the reader wanting to find out what caused the break in such a close friendship, a break so drastic that Young-sook doesn’t even want to talk to Mi-ja’s descendants.
Though I knew about free-divers, I had never heard of haenyeo. This book describes their work in great detail: their beliefs, rituals, and skills. Researchers have studied them and discovered that “’the cold-water stress that the haenyeo endure is greater than for any other human group in the world.’” Their work is dangerous, so much so that the leader of a haenyeo collective reminds the women that “’Every woman who enters the sea carries a coffin on her back . . . We are crossing between life and death every day.’”
I also found Jeju’s matrifocal culture interesting: “’not a matriarchy. Rather, it’s a society focused on women’” where men “’live in a household that depends on the tail of a skirt.’” The women are the breadwinners, supporting their families by diving. “’Given the dominance on Jeju of volcanic cones, which are concave at the top like a woman’s private parts, it is only natural that on our island females call and males follow.’” The husband’s “only responsibilities are to take care of babies and do a little cooking.” Besides harvesting the wet fields of the ocean, the women also maintain gardens, dry fields: “it’s a well-known fact that men’s knees are too stiff for this work, and they are shy around sickles and hoes.” The women work hard but have independence because their husbands have no say in “what a woman could or could not do, say or not say.”
There is humour in the women’s descriptions of their husbands as lazy and weak: “No man was built to shoulder the full weight of feeding and caring for his family. That was why he had a wife and daughters.” They mock “man’s sensitive ears’ and “the sentimentality of a man.” Haenyeo talk about what they don’t want in a husband: “’I don’t want a husband with puny thoughts. I won’t tolerate a husband who needs scolding - Or requires constant attention to know I care for him.’”
Characterization is outstanding, especially that of Young-sook who emerges as a memorable character. Being a haenyeo requires her to be physically strong (“it typically took two [men] to carry what a haenyeo brought ashore”) but also mentally strong, independent, determined, and brave. Young-sook is all of these but her stubbornness proves to be both a positive and negative quality. She finds forgiveness difficult and chooses to remain angry and bitter. Nonetheless, given what losses she suffers, her behaviour is realistic and understandable.
The novel examines friendship, betrayal, and forgiveness. It also looks at how political conflicts led by men impact the lives of women and children and their closest relationships. Readers should be warned that the depths of human cruelty are detailed, especially in descriptions of the Jeju Uprising, what Young-sook calls the 4.3 Incident. This is surely one of history’s least-known massacres; for almost fifty years after the uprising, it was a crime punishable by beatings, torture and a lengthy prison sentence if any South Korean even mentioned the events of the Jeju Uprising in which tens of thousands were killed. Only this past April did South Korean police and defense ministry apologize for the massacres.
This is historical fiction at its best. The author did extensive research and provides the reader with information about little-known cultures and historical events. In addition, the book has a compelling plot, memorable characters, and thematic depth. Like a haenyeo, take a deep breath and dive in!