From the battle torn France of World War II, to the women warriors of Ethiopia during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, and now to the haenyeo in post-WWII Korea, I’ve been on a bit of a “women at war” kick. The Nightingale, The Shadow King, and The Mermaid from Jeju are all three written by women and primarily about women during armed conflicts in their homelands.
The Mermaid from Jeju (December 2020) is Sumi Hahn’s first novel, and what a brilliant first novel it is. It is a love story of family, heart, and home. It is a story of resistance and choices. It is a story of magic and appeasing the Sea King, because he will always take back what is his. It is a story of mermaids.
The haenyeo are deep-sea divers, exclusively women since the 1600s, from the island of Jeju. While there are only a few thousand left today, these mermaids have been diving to feed their families for centuries. Many of the divers that caught the attention of the American soldiers following World War II were grandmothers, their bent bodies barely able to move on land but are like fish in the water. These women passed their knowledge to their children and their children’s children – a matriarchal tradition born of necessity that is dying; the majority of the divers today are over fifty.
This beautifully crafted tale is set just following the Japanese occupation of Korea during World War II, and it follows Junja, a young girl who dives along side her mother and her grandmother. Her mother is considered one of it not the best diver on the island. Junja is the oldest of three children, and she’s trained her whole life to be a haenyeo. Her father, a mainlander who’d been unable to come to terms with his beautiful wife being the breadwinner, had abandoned them all years ago.
Desperate to prove herself and show independence, Junja begs her mother to let her take the annual trip to the mountains to trade the gifts from the sea for a piglet. Her mother relents, and the young girl begins the trip that will forever change her life. She’s enchanted by the mountains almost as much as she is by Yan Suwol, the wealthy pig farmer’s firstborn son who is equally smitten by her.
Junja has been warned to keep her wits about her and watch for any trouble, be it wild animals or soldiers on the road. She’s also been warned never to talk politics, to remain always neutral. But no one has told her that her country remains in a tenuous position; the Japanese may have left, but what is coming may be worse.
She returns home from the journey with the flushed cheeks of someone who breathed mountain air and love for the first time. She just in time to see her mother succumb to injuries Junja been told were from a diving expedition, despite her mother being an excellent diver. Junja blames herself. If she hadn’t begged her mother to let her take the trip, her mother wouldn’t have been near the water that day. Junja’s grandmother blames herself because she knows the truth. She knows the secrets that must remain buried.
As the conflict intensifies, Junja finds herself and her grandmother in the thick of it. Suwol, the poet and scholar who has her heart, is hellbent on fighting the Nationalists. Her grandmother has taken to cooking for a Nationalist soldier, speaking in hushed tones to him over the meals he praises. Junja does not trust him, and neither does Suwol. But Junja quickly learns that things are not what they appear, and people aren’t always who they pretend to be. A carefully orchestrated ruse to rescue her beloved Suwol starts a series of events that Junja’s grandmother would insist were always meant to be – a series of events that will shatter you.
I wanted more of the haenyeo. Hahn hints the ways in which they protected their families and homes, from whoring to spying, but those stories are just quick little teases. I also wanted more of Junja’s grandmother, a woman who, unlike Junja’s mother, refused to stay neutral. The things she did and the ways she fought during the Japanese occupation deserved more than a passing glance. But this is the story of one mermaid, a mermaid who is forced to become a woman during a volatile time for her country, and like a mermaid, the novel is absolutely enchanting.
Sumi Hahn’s lovely debut, The Mermaid from Jeju, will be released on 08 December 2020. Thank you to Alcove Press and Crooked Lane Books for getting this gorgeous ARC in my hands. For those still doing their Christmas shopping, if you’ve a bookworm on your list who loves historical women’s fiction or women’s fiction in general, this will be published just in time and will look lovely under a tree.