Comparing “The Island of Sea Women” by Lisa See and “The Mermaid from Jeju” by Sumi Hahn
Note: There are NO SPOILERS in the first part of this review, and I will include a warning when spoilers are coming.
“So, a veteran novelist and a debut novelist walk into a publishing house…”
I was amazed when I first realized that Lisa See and Sumi Hahn published novels within one year of each other that have the exact same setting—South Korea’s Jeju Island. Lisa See’s The Island of Sea Women came out in 2019, and Sumi Hahn’s The Mermaid from Jeju came out in 2020.
With so many books published every year, perhaps it doesn’t seem too surprising for two English language novels to be set on the same island, especially when Jeju is a relatively large island in size and population, and a huge tourist destination: The island is only a little smaller in area than Maui, has more residents than Washington, D.C., and its airport sees more visitors than Amsterdam Schiphol. It’s also a unique volcanic island with distinct geology, ecology, culture, and history—so it’s the perfect setting for an interesting story.
Nevertheless, Jeju remains a place that few people living outside of East Asia have ever heard of. The first time I learned about the island was during the History of Korea course I took in college. Most Americans, I would assume, can’t name anywhere in South Korea besides Seoul and maybe Busan (or in recent years, maybe Gangnam!). It seems just as unlikely that Americans would pay attention to a remote part of South Korea as it would be for Americans to fixate on any of the smaller, lesser-known islands of Japan or the Philippines. I certainly never expected to see two novels about Jeju written by American authors—especially ones that appeared on the market nearly simultaneously.
The parallels between The Island of Sea Women and The Mermaid from Jeju go far beyond just the geographic locations of the stories: The novels are also set in the same timeframe, during and after the Second World War, and both flash back to this timeframe from the 21st century, with characters who have moved from Korea to the United States. The stories both have protagonists who are young haenyeo, or women who make a living through a unique tradition of ocean diving. Both the books’ titles, after all, refer to this culture.
So, before I go any further, there’s clearly a question I have to address:
Do I think either Lisa See or Sumi Hahn stole her concept from the other author, like when Jeffrey Katzenberg took the pitch for A Bug’s Life and turned it into Antz?
No, of course not (although that is a fun idea to think about).
In fact, both See and Hahn provide explanations of how the ideas for their novels originated:
See doesn’t specify exactly when she began work on The Island of Sea Women, but she states that she had learned about the haenyeo many years before, and later decided their culture would make the perfect setting for a novel examining relationships between women. See also released other books in 2011, 2014, and 2017 before her novel on the haenyeo came out in 2019, so it’s clear she works very hard on her novels and follows a meticulous and efficient research and writing process. Hahn, meanwhile, shares that the initial inspiration for her first novel came to her in 2013, but the concept was utterly transformed by the experiences she had when she visited Jeju in 2015. (I’ll share more on that later.) She then finished her first draft of the book in 2018.
I am grateful that See and Hahn both shared so much from their own personal experiences in writing their novels as part of their acknowledgements, author’s notes, and even the text of an interview included in their books. These insights really help illustrate how different the experiences, methods, and motivations of the two novelists were, even if the resulting books seem so similar at first glance.
The Island of Sea Women and The Mermaid from Jeju are in fact very different sorts of novels: They differ stylistically just about as much as possible for two works of historical fiction set in the same chronological framework. I believe both books had different strengths and shortcomings, and both are worthy of readers’ attention—although not necessarily the same readers. If you are interested in reading one or both of these novels and need help deciding which to choose or start with, here is how I would very briefly summarize (without spoilers) the major factors that might lead you to choose one or the other:
Lisa See’s The Island of Sea Women is a highly detailed and finely crafted work of historical fiction that will thoroughly educate you on the haenyeo diving culture of Jeju Island while also immersing you in an intense, emotional story of two women and their friendship. Sumi Hahn’s The Mermaid from Jeju, meanwhile, is written in a rougher, raw form. The novel features a varied cast of characters, male and female, and includes a more romantic storyline. There is also a shift in tone and perspective that leads to a conclusion with more spiritual themes, even bordering on magical realism.
Hopefully those summaries will help you decide if you want to read one or both of the books. Now, if you wish to join me, I will continue my review by sharing my thoughts on some of the details from the stories.
Warning: There are SPOILERS below for the plots of both novels.
More than anything else, the authors’ motivations in writing their books really get to the heart of the fundamental differences between The Island of Sea Women and The Mermaid from Jeju.
See explains at the very start of the interview included in the back of the book that her intent was to write about “friendship, forgiveness, and the diving women of Jeju Island.” Later on, she adds “I find it extremely exciting to read about women through the eyes of women,” and emphasizes that, since women writing about women’s relationships still makes up a relatively small part of the body of literature that’s been written throughout history, there are still “millions of fresh ideas” waiting to be written about. See absolutely delivers on her goals in writing The Island of Sea Women: The book does address, in deep and intense ways, friendship and forgiveness in relationships between women, and it truly immerses readers in an fascinating vision of the haenyeo diving culture.
However, as a result of this focus, male characters in See’s novel are utterly unremarkable. No man in the story sees any significant character development, and all the male characters appear as bit players who do not significantly impact the plot in any way. Or, if some men are pivotal to certain plot points, they impact the plot in a mechanistic, unsurprising manner. The most fully alive male character in the book is Jun-bu, the husband of Young-sook, the protagonist. I connected with the descriptions of Jun-bu and Young-sook’s relationship, but those moments were limited, and I was left wanting more. In contrast, Young-sook’s father is an utterly flat character, even though he is present throughout most of the story. It is clear that See intends for him to be flat, as he frequently fails to contribute significantly to his family or take part in addressing major issues that confront them. This dynamic further reinforces the theme See emphasizes throughout the book—that women take the lead in the haenyeo culture of Jeju, and that they make or strongly influence all important choices for their families.
Of course, there is no inherent problem with there being an absence of complex male characters in The Island of Sea Women. See fully achieves what she sets out to do, and as I read the book, I genuinely enjoyed spending so much time with the complex female characters of Young-sook and her friend Mi-ja, as well as Young-sook’s grandmother and other divers in the community. As See points to in her interview, it may still be difficult sometimes, even in 2022, to find great literature exploring women’s relationships. For a reader like me, focusing on women’s relationships in my reading is a rarity. As a result, The Island of Sea Women was a refreshing and highly beneficial read for me. Nevertheless, it was quite noticeable how absent men were from the story, and as I mentioned, I wished for the opportunity to understand men like Jun-bu better, even if it would have made the 365-page text even longer.
Hahn’s motivations in writing The Mermaid from Jeju were extraordinarily different from See’s. The impression given by the author’s note and acknowledgements at the back of Hahn’s book is that writing this novel was an intensely personal and even spiritual experience for her. She concludes her author’s note by sharing that when she stayed at a hotel in Jeju City, she heard voices and “panicked screams,” including a phrase known to be specifically used by victims of the massacres on Jeju that took place from 1948–1949. The last sentences of the note are, “My guide begged me to consult a shaman. Apparently, I was seeing ghosts.” Hahn does not specify much more about her personal experiences, but it appears clear to me that, given the content of the latter part of her novel, she must believe that there are spiritual forces present on Jeju Island that shamans may be able to engage with. Or, at least, she believes such an idea is worthy of consideration.
The Mermaid from Jeju features a girl named Junja as its first protagonist and takes up her perspective for nearly the first two-thirds of the book. She is a haenyeo, and as such, would seem to be the titular “mermaid.” Unlike the powerful haenyeo in The Island of Sea Women, however, Junja is not the key decision-maker for her family, and does not seem to have much control over her own destiny, or even her day-to-day choices. Her path throughout the main part of the book is shaped by her mother and then her grandmother, and then by male characters as well, including the young man Suwol she begins a romance with.
I quite intentionally call Junja a “girl” and Suwol a “young man,” even though the characters may not differ so greatly in age, because those are exactly the impressions of the two characters I was given in the book. Junja remains quite naïve throughout most of the action in the plot. Information flies over her head, and she is guided—or even manipulated—by her grandmother and others. Although Junja does mature some, and is eventually “in” on the ongoing action, I was left a little befuddled as to whether Junja might be considered a true protagonist, or if she really developed enough as a character for readers to fully identify with her. I could not connect with her.
It was also striking, given that I read The Island of Sea Women before The Mermaid from Jeju, that Hahn rather briefly describes Junja as taking the lead as a young haenyeo, while See detailed lengthy storylines related to how difficult it was for her characters to gain experience and seniority as divers. Given the order I read the books in, and how Junja is characterized in the rest of the story, I found it difficult to believe she could assert herself so quickly as a diver.
There are, however, other strengths to Hahn’s story that may compensate for Junja’s weaknesses as a character. Junja’s love interest Suwol comes from the interior of Jeju Island, and plentiful scenes help illustrate the full geography of Jeju and the diversity of lifestyles it contained, from its shores to the slopes of the volcano Hallasan at the center of the island. With her singular focus on the women of the sea, See leaves the mountainsides and their people a complete mystery in her story. Hahn, meanwhile, makes her cast of characters more culturally diverse, as well as more balanced in gender.
That leads to the enormous stylistic surprise in The Mermaid from Jeju: Almost two-thirds of the way through the book, the perspective abruptly shifts to Dr. Moon Gun Joo, a man who is absent from most of the central story, but who eventually becomes Junja’s husband (not Suwol). At the very beginning of the book, Junja had died—as an older Korean-American woman living in Philadelphia in 2001. Then, in Part Two, the story returns to 2001 to pick up Gun Joo’s perspective after his wife’s death. There is then another flashback to finish the central story in 1948, followed by a conclusion in 2001 in which Gun Joo is haunted by ghosts and must return to Jeju—and hire a shaman—to resolve his trauma.
This approach is likely one that readers will either love or hate. It seems unique to resolve a protagonist’s story through her husband after her death, and again, it shows how Hahn offers greater diversity of perspectives in her story. However, the shift to Gun Joo’s story also further reinforces Junja’s weakness as the book’s titular character. I wouldn’t say I “hated” the conclusion focused on Gun Joo, but I would say that it made the novel feel disjointed, even if it made for interesting reading.
I do find it remarkable—and unfortunate—that both See and Hahn chose to structure their novels through flashbacks from the 21st century. (See sets her “present” in 2008.) I am certainly biased, as a history-obsessed reader and history educator, but I believe I would have felt much more immersed and satisfied with both stories if they proceeded in a straightforward, chronological order. See and Hahn use their flashback-flashforward strategies to hide and then reveal key information and surprises in their stories, but I think those moments would have been just as shocking and impactful for readers without the authors dancing around them. I do certainly appreciate efforts to directly link the past to the present, but the ways in which these writers attempted to do that did not resonate with me.
My greatest disagreements with See’s choices in The Island of Sea Women came during her scenes set in 2008. In particular, I found that the teenage, third-generation Korean-American character named Clara strained my suspension of disbelief beyond its breaking point. Clara is visiting Jeju from the U.S. and finds Young-sook as an elderly, retired haenyeo who continues to work on the beach. Clara starts talking to Young-sook and even follows her, finding her multiple days in a row, even as Young-sook does not appreciate Clara harrassing her. Young-sook learns Clara is the great-granddaughter of her friend Mi-ja, whom Young-sook never spoke to again after Mi-ja did not (or could not) intervene in the massacre of most of Young-sook’s family. Clara has recordings of her great-grandmother speaking about the event and apologizing to Young-sook—recordings that Clara listens to repeatedly and has even memorized. Then, it is perhaps the greatest SPOILER for the book that Clara is revealed to also be Young-sook’s great-granddaughter. Although Mi-ja died before Young-sook ever talked to her again, Clara is their shared descendant. Young-sook goes with Clara and her family to the dedication of a memorial to the massacre, and finds forgiveness in her heart.
It was not the revelation of Clara’s family lines that broke my suspension of disbelief, but rather the way she behaves, and the ways that she and her family apparently plotted to return to Jeju and convince Young-sook to forgive Mi-ja. As a high school teacher, I know and have known a lot of teenagers. I find it outright impossible to imagine a teenager like Clara with all of the thoughts, skills, and motivations that See describes. I might offer a theory that a major part of why Clara appears so unbelievable is that she effectively functions as the agent of See’s own vision of redemptive forgiveness—both a symbol and engineer of the perfect conclusion See wanted for her story.
My personal preference is for a story with an imperfect ending, or at least an ending with some ambiguity, just as all of our real-life stories contain imperfections and ambiguities. A book with a similar generational premise to See’s, but which handles that premise in a far more realistic way, is Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. And not to worry—after reading The Island of Sea Women and The Mermaid from Jeju, Homegoing still safely retains its title as the best historical fiction I’ve ever read.
Compared to See’s writing of Clara, Hahn does a far more convincing job creating the characters of Junja’s daughters, second-generation Korean Americans. Dr. Moon’s thoughts and actions after his wife’s death, and the disconnect he has with his daughters, all ring true to me. However, I can’t discuss the realism of the two novels without addressing the spiritualism that comes to the fore in the conclusion to The Mermaid from Jeju. My feelings about it remain conflicted. I do enjoy some magical realism, but I am not even sure that Hahn’s conclusion really qualifies as magical realism. It may well reflect a sincere belief in spiritualism that isn’t intended to contain “magic” at all. At the risk of looking like a hypocrite after what I wrote in the previous paragraph, I think Hahn’s conclusion might contain too much ambiguity, and I might have appreciated clearer guidance as to what exactly the author was hoping I would take away from her story. Then again, I may have just failed as a reader to understand her full message.
One more difference I noticed between See and Hahn’s writing was their use of the Korean language. Both See and Hahn use a fairly large number of Korean terms in their books, but the words they use and how they use them differ significantly. As should be unsurpsing at this point, See appears to take far more systematic approach: The vocabulary she uses is more “technical” in nature and is used repeatedly in connection with the practices of the haenyeo, helping to educate the reader and paint a richly detailed portrait of that culture. I would describe the vocabulary Hahn uses as more “flavorful,” covering a seemingly more random assortment of foods, sights, phrases, and words related to myths and beliefs. It seems See aims to use the Korean words she chose so repeatedly and systematically that readers will fully remember what they mean, but Hahn’s approach left me remembering few of the words when they were repeated. Nevertheless, Hahn has an ace up her sleeve in that she included a glossary in her book, and in spite of See’s writing skills, I was left wishing she had done the same.
I have, perhaps, written far more about The Island of Sea Women and The Mermaid from Jeju than anyone on the internet might wish to read. However, I did feel it was highly worthwhile to compare these two books, and that there may be people out there hoping to Google more about them than is currently available online. Ultimately, I enjoyed reading both novels, both for their stories and for the enlightening insights they offered on Jeju Island, its people, and its past.
“So, a veteran novelist and a debut novelist walk into a publishing house…”
“…and even though their skills and approaches differ, they both have stories worth reading.”
It’s not a punchline, but it makes sense to me.
Please leave a comment below to share your reactions and thoughts!