After reading - and loving - The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (my thoughts here) - a couple of years ago, when I saw that Lisa See was releasing a new book this year, I ordered it. The Island of Sea Women: A Novel.* And I'm so glad I did. I was coming off of a really disappointing read; this was quite the opposite.
I devoured this book in just two days. And I am definitely going to read it again before I lend it to anyone! It is that stunning.
If I had to pick a favorite genre, historical fiction is it. This is the story of two friends' lives erected on the framework of the historical matriarchal society where the women in Korea work as haenyeo divers. These women free-dive and harvest the ocean's treasures including abalone, urchin, and octopus. You see how their bodies have adapted to withstand the cold and the hardship when they are medically studied and tracked.
The men stay home and watch the children. However, despite the matrifocal structure of the divers, property is still in the man's name. And they often take the women's wages and squander it through gambling and drinking.
Young-sook and Mi-ja are haeneyo. They grew up together, became divers together, then their paths diverged after their respective marriages. The story is tragic and heart-breaking. And, a word of warning, there is violence, but it's temporally appropriate violence if that makes a difference to you. It's not gratuitious violence. I don't care for books like that.
Beyond the exposition of human psychology on forgiveness and love, See also weaves in the mysticism of the island landscape of Jeju. The folklore and superstitions are characters of their own. From the village to the caves, you are pulled into the Jeju world from the 1930s to 2008, from Japanese occupation to Los Angeles.
During the Welcome to the Goddess ceremony, "Shaman Kim beckoned. 'We welcome Yeongdeung, the goddess of the wind. We welcome all ancestors and spirits who accompany her. Enjoy the peach and camellia that are blooming. Embrace the beauty of our island. Sow the seeds of the five grains on our land. Sow seeds into the sea, which will grow into underwater crops. Offerings of fruit, bowls of rice, dried fish and squid, bottles of homemade liquor, and hard-boiled eggs spilled across the makeshift altar. Every woman and girl from our collective was here" (pg. 268).
This is another stunner from See. I will definitely be picking up more titles by her soon.
There were many things I thought to make from the book, including abalone, kimchee, and other Korean dishes. But I saw this bottle of rice wine, called Snow Maiden, and decided to try it.
Rice wine is mentioned often as part of rituals and celebrations. "We made offerings of rice cakes and rice wine to the goddesses and gods. Then it was time for fortune-telling" (pg. 283). It's also a part of their hospitality. "When Dr. Park finally came to my house, I invited him to sit and poured him a bowl of rice wine. The low table was already set with side dishes: kimchee, pickled beans, lotus root, boiled squash, sliced black pig, salted damselfish, spiced bracken, and boiled, seasoned, and slivered sea cucumber" (pg. 288).
|Me after a successful hunt for fresh lotus root
I have hunted down lotus root before (here) and make kimchee often (one version here). But I opted to share this sake which is named after Hanako, or 'Flower Maiden', the most famous Japanese koi fish that purportedly lived for over two centuries in the snowy waters at the foot of Japan’s Mt. Ontake.
It is a cloudy, unfiltered rice wine with a creamy texture and full body. I got complex flavors of melon mixed with a piquant bite of radish. We tried it at room temperature and slightly chilled. As the temperature dropped, it seemed less fruity and more ricey.
And, no, the irony isn't lost on me that this is a rice wine from Japan. I wouldn't know where to get my hands on Korean rice wine. Anyone?
*This blog currently has a partnership with Amazon.com in their affiliate program, which gives me a small percentage of sales if you buy a product through a link on my blog. It doesn't cost you anything more. If you are uncomfortable with this, feel free to go directly to Amazon.com and search for the item of your choice.
Click to see what everyone else read in July 2019: here.