The unassuming heroines of Jeju Island

Prepublication review of The Mermaid from Jeju by Sumi Hahn

r/suggestmeabook: I want an elegy for Jeju in the aftermath of WWII with memorable characters and hints of the fantastic.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 241

Publisher: Alcove Press

Publication date: 12/8/2020

From the publisher: In the aftermath of World War II, Goh Junja is a girl just coming into her own. She is the latest successful deep sea diver in a family of strong haenyeo. Confident she is a woman now, Junja urges her mother to allow her to make the Goh family’s annual trip to Mt. Halla, where they trade abalone and other sea delicacies for pork.

At the beginning of this tale, I was expecting it to be like lovely The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See, and thought, “Oh, dear. See did such a great job of evoking the world of the Haenyeo that I’m going to spend the whole novel comparing them.”

The dawn sky was inky, but their eyes were accustomed to the darker pitch of the ocean. They navigated the shadows, bare feet steering.

Sumi Hahn, The Mermaid from Jeju

Thankfully, that was not the case. Instead, it supplements an understanding of the period from different points of view, along with Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. These novels together give multiple points of entry into a time that the West (or at least America) knows little about.

When the gods go to war, the old woman warned, men always followed in kind.

Sumi Hahn, The Mermaid from Jeju

The Korean War is often called “The Forgotten War,” and the view of the prelude of that war from Jeju, as portrayed by Sumi Hahn, is one which Americans would be well advised to learn about. No, we’re not heroes. Yes, we should be aware of the ways in which we have failed as a nation.

Dong Min frowned. “But aren’t we supposed to be the good guys?” The Lieutenant took off his glasses to clean them. He held them up to the light before putting them back on. “That’s the lie politicians feed soldiers to do their dirty work.”

Sumi Hahn, The Mermaid from Jeju

The characters are wonderful in this book; I fell in love with many of them. Junja reaching for womanhood, her grandmother trying to restore the legacy of her family from before the Japanese occupation, Suwol dreaming of a different life than tradition would saddle him with, Constable Lee searching for the food his mother used to make—each one eases into your heart, as quietly as the tide.

Suwol stopped walking. “Did you know that people in America don’t have to draw or pump their water? All they do is twist a metal handle, and water flows right into their homes.”

Junja tried to imagine such a device, but could not fathom how it would work without flooding the house.

Sumi Hahn, The Mermaid from Jeju

The insight into the spirituality of the Jeju women was quite taking. Be warned: ghosts, sea kings, dreams, portents—they all reside on this island. Even the origin story of the island is mystic. Shaman are respected here.

Their minister visited Junja’s village often, trying to convince everyone that the Christian God was more powerful than all the gods of Korea combined. “My grandmother says that anyone with a lick of sense would not allow a foreign god to meddle here.”

Sumi Hahn, The Mermaid from Jeju

The writing seemed a bit uneven in places. Early in the book, the sentences felt choppy and staccato, but as the story progressed, that sense of quick and unsettling movement smoothed out. But since the content of the book is a movement from naivete to knowledge, I can see how form echoes content, but I found it took me a little longer to get into than I think it would have otherwise. It was a distraction rather than an enhancement.

This is the first book where I’ve thought about a content warning. The beginning of the book is pastoral and feels like it’s going to be a coming of age story, but it pivots rather quickly from that narrative. There are some rough scenes in this book that are dictated by the reality of the Korean War period, and some of them come on you without much warning. However, overall, there is a lot of foreshadowing.

I was a bit disappointed in the ending, as it felt as though it petered out rather than having the same vigor as the story up until then. However, it was not a big enough issue to ruin the book for me, as some endings have in the past.

All in all, The Mermaid from Jeju is a worthwhile read, with some heart-rending moments and admirable sacrifices, an elegy for Jeju as it was, with some wistful attempts at redemption.

Advance Review Copy provided by NetGalley.

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