The Island of Sea Women: A Novel

Lisa See

Scribner, 2019

Agent: Sandra Dijkstra

A new novel from Lisa See, the New York Times bestselling author of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, about female friendship and family secrets on a small Korean island.

Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends that come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility but also danger.

Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook’s differences are impossible to ignore. The Island of Sea Women is an epoch set over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War and its aftermath, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, and she will forever be marked by this association. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that after surviving hundreds of dives and developing the closest of bonds, forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.

This beautiful, thoughtful novel illuminates a world turned upside down, one where the women are in charge, engaging in dangerous physical work, and the men take care of the children. A classic Lisa See story—one of women’s friendships and the larger forces that shape them—The Island of Sea Womenintroduces readers to the fierce and unforgettable female divers of Jeju Island and the dramatic history that shaped their lives.


• Nominated for the Goodreads Choice Awards under "Historical Fiction" 

• Named one of Fodor's Travels 16 Books to Inspire Your Travels This Fall 2019

• 5 weeks on The New York Times Bestseller List

• 5 weeks on the National Indie Bestseller List

• 15 weeks on The Los Angeles Times Bestseller List

• 4 weeks on the USA Today bestseller list

• Instant Canadian bestseller

• Named one of the Most Anticipated Books of 2019 by Oprah Magazine

• March 2019 Indie Next List

• The Barnes & Noble March 2019 National Book Club Selection

• A REFINERY 29 lead pick for Best Books of March 2019

• A Book Riot choice for March 2019 Horoscopes and Book Recommendations list 

• Featured in People Magazine for new audiobooks

• Indie Bestseller List for paperbacks


"In her latest novel, The Island of Sea Women, Lisa See tackles the notion of women’s fiction head-on... The Island of Sea Women comes full circle from women’s fiction to “just” fiction, and finally to a powerful and essential story of humanity."
—Los Angeles Review of Books

"An enthralling novel reimagines a once-thriving matriarchy... As in Shanghai Girls and other previous works, See ventures to East Asia to revisit a female-centric story largely lost to time... The novel explores the ways global forces poked holes in the Jeju idyll...A story that's universal." 
—The Oprah Magazine

“Underlying all of See’s work is the theme of female friendship. Throughout her oeuvre, which spans periods from the 19th century to the mid-20th and backdrops from Shanghai to San Francisco, See excels at exploring the bonds between women, whether friends or family…See’s vivid prose and thorough research bring to life the seafaring existence of these women…in her depiction of [the Japanese occupation], the power of See’s words shines through… See’s meticulous research is perhaps most apparent in the magical, strange passages when Young-sook and Mi-ja, both married and pregnant, go for ‘leaving home water work’…[a] thoughtful and empathetic book…necessary.”
The New York Times Book Review
“See demonstrates her skill in weaving complicated histories with the dramatic generational sagas of her characters. In The Island of Sea Women, she uses evocative prose to craft a compelling narrative, bringing timeless human experiences into historical events. Her rendering of an unraveling friendship demonstrates that forgiving is not the same as forgetting.”
—Annabel Gutterman, TIME  

“Beautiful story…the book is about the endurance of friendship when pushed to its limits, and you will love it.”
“For centuries, women on Korea’s Jeju island have been free-diving into the sea, a practice explored through this fictionalized story of two friends who struggle to stay close amid war, family rivalries, and a shifting cultural landscape. It’s riveting, historical, and heartbreaking all at once.”
Marie Claire
“Lisa See draws readers into the fascinating history of Korea’s Jeju Island and its women divers (haenyeo) who risk danger to collect shellfish while the men raise the children. Mi-ja and Young-sook are soul sisters who find joy and heartbreak in this unforgettable epic spanning 50 years, as their culturally rich island’s legacy is forever changed by world events. Readers will witness the fortitude of these women to transcend tragedy and find forgiveness.”
The Christian Science Monitor
“In her latest novel, The Island of Sea Women, best-selling author Lisa See explores the friendship between two Korean free divers…In her latest work of historical fiction, The Island of Sea Women, Chinese-American author Lisa See­—best-selling author of 10 novels, including Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane—weaves a tale around two young haenyeo, Young-sook and Mi-ja. The best friends endure hardship during World War II and its aftermath.”

“One of the most compelling — and heartstrings-tugging — tales to spring from the mind of the best-selling author of The Tea Girl From Hummingbird Lane and nearly a dozen other novels… the story takes readers on a journey spanning generations — in this case 1938 to 2008 — as moments of cherished friendship, unspeakable tragedy and, in the end, a plot twist worthy of Raymond Chandler unfold.”
—John Rogers, The Associated Press

"“Sea Women” is the story of an 80-year friendship between two girls of contrasting backgrounds who meet as apprentices in a haenyeo diving collective... All the while, Mi-ja’s and Young-sook’s friendship grows closer and then further apart as secrets are kept and revealed, grudges grow and are forgiven, and life-altering decisions are made in the names of love, duty or necessity."
Sacramento Bee

"“A stupendous multigenerational family saga, See’s latest also provides an enthralling cultural anthropology highlighting the soon-to-be-lost, matriarchal haenyeo phenomenon and an engrossing history of violently tumultuous twentieth-century Korea. A mesmerizing achievement. See's accomplishment, acclaim, and readership continue to rise with each book, and interest in this stellar novel will be well stoked.”
Booklist (starred)

 “See perceptively depicts challenges faced by Koreans over the course of the 20th century, particularly homing in on the ways the haenyeo have struggled to maintain their way of life. Exposing the depths of human cruelty and resilience, See’s lush tale is a wonderful ode to a truly singular group of women.”
Publishers Weekly 

"Lisa See excels at mining the intersection of family, friendship and history, and in her newest novel, she reaches new depths exploring the matrifocal haenyeo society in Korea, caught between tradition and modernization.  This novel spans wars and generations, but at its heart is a beautifully rendered story of two women whose individual choices become inextricably tangled.”
Jodi Picoult, New York Times bestselling author of A Spark of Light and Small Great Things

"I was spellbound the moment I entered the vivid and little-known world of the diving women of Jeju. Set amid sweeping historical events, The Island of Sea Women is the extraordinary story of Young-sook and Mi-ja, of women’s daring, heartbreak, strength, and forgiveness. No one writes about female friendship, the dark and the light of it, with more insight and depth than Lisa See."
Sue Monk KiddNew York Times bestselling author of The Invention of Wings 

"I loved The Island of Sea Women from the very first page.  Lisa See has created an enthralling, compelling portrait of a unique culture and a turbulent time in history, but what's really remarkable about this novel is the characters--two women whose lifelong friendship is tested during impossibly difficult times.  Compelling, heart-wrenching, and beautifully written, The Island of Sea Women will plunge you into a world and a story you've never read before and remind you how powerful women can and must be to survive."
Kristin Hannah, New York Times bestselling author of The Great Alone