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.
There is so much to explain to the modern Western reader that See must load each sentence in the first sections of the novel with information ... It takes some patience, though nothing is superfluous ... The challenge for an author of capturing such a significant and little-known historical event is immense, even if she were to devote an entire book to it, but See is able to convey the horror through the individual, personal, vulnerable human body ... See is most deft when she plays with this line — of betrayal and the impossibility of forgiveness — which she does on a national level as well as a deeply personal one ... uses the impact of war on women and children to enable the reader to experience the ways in which colonialism, empire-building, and nationalism destroy communities and countries ... comes full circle from women’s fiction to 'just' fiction, and finally to a powerful and essential story of humanity ... Although the novel does not read as an overtly political statement on the divisions we are currently creating among ourselves within the United States, it nonetheless reminds us of how easily we can be made vulnerable, and how quickly we can slip into hating what we fear, or hating what we are told to because we fear.
See did extensive research with primary sources to detail not only the haenyeo traditions, but the mass murders on Jeju beginning in 1948, which were covered up for decades by the South Korean government ... The tangled web of politics and tyranny, not to mention the inaction of U.N. and American occupiers leading up to the massacres, deserves its own work, perhaps nonfiction. In the context of such horrors, the novel’s main source of suspense, whether Young-sook can forgive Mi-ja, seems beside the point ... Although this novel’s reach exceeds its grasp, it is a necessary book.