The Mermaid of Jeju by Sumi Hahn

“The half moon disappeared behind a cloud, casting the scene into darkness. The silence between the boy and girl expanded. It filled with memories of promises made, words that the world had broken.”

3/5 stars.
ebook, 300 pages.
Read from March 25, 2021 to March 31, 2021.

I’ve always been fascinated by the women on Jeju Island that, for generations, have been deep-sea diving to feed their families and community. This amazing group of divers are known as haenyeo.

“The ocean sucked each diver down greedily. But the women were prepared for battle. They swiped their knives at the fingers of the sea grass that clutched at them. They used picks to pry away shells clinging to underwater rocks. They worked the waters, humming the chants of their forebearing mothers, who had explored the deep before them.”

Set in the mid-1940s, Korea is undergoing massive change at the end of WWII with the forced withdrawal of Japanese that have occupied Korea for decades. Junja is a young woman who has recently joined the ranks of haenyeo after surviving the rite of passage from a treacherous dive. Junja, who has never left her village, convinces her mother that she is old enough and responsible enough to take the annual delivery to the mountains. During this trip, she meets a young boy named Suwol who ends up rescuing her from a dangerous situation on the road. Shook by the encounter on the road, she is equally as smitten with Suwol. Unfortunately, the quiet village where Junja lives is not immune to the political changes affecting her country with the massive upheaval left with the withdrawal of the Japanese. Nationalists now contend with Communists and the US troops have taken the place of the Japanese. When Junja returns home, she finds her mother dead. It was claimed that she drowned and was battered at sea but the real story of her death is much more harrowing. Junja is devastated. As she drowns in her grief, her siblings are sent away to live with their estranged father while she remains at home with her grandmother. Junja’s world will never be the same and she must make a choice and learn to get through the storm of changes. 

This book started strongly and captivated me with its gorgeous writing and heartbreaking outcomes. The story spans over a few decades, as it begins with where Junja ends up later in life and how her story comes full circle in the end. The rich depictions of the haenyeo and their life in this small sea village are beautiful and visceral while the plot also highlights important parts of Korean heritage and history. 

“Here is a secret: Long long time ago, when I was a girl, I was a mermaid, too.” 

The last half of the book felt less cohesive than the first causing my interest to wane near the end of the novel. It’s still a beautiful story with great characters that paint a picture of a mythical, turbulent and resilient Korea. Historical-fiction lovers will enjoy Junja’s story as well as anyone interested in post-war history or coming of age stories.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: in love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.”

5/5 stars.
Hardcover, 440 pages.
Read June 12, 2019 to June 17, 2019.

Well, well, well, isn’ it wonderful when the hype about a book turns out to be true? This novel had the perfect combination of things that I love in a good book. A historical-fiction plot based in WWII (one of my favourite settings), strong and dynamic female characters, great writing, and a few surprises in store at the end. If this book has been on your TBR pile, it’s time to go and pick it up!

It’s 1939 and the Nazis have started to encroach on France. Two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, are about to face the war that’s coming. Having lost their mother at a young age and with an absent father who was dealing with his own demons from WW1, the two girls each felt abandoned in their youth. Vianne, the eldest, found love and married early but always relied on her husband for the guidance, rarely making decisions for herself. Isabelle never stopped feeling angry for being abandoned by her whole family. Rebellious at heart, she was kicked out of several girls schools before the start of the war and is rash and headstrong. The two of them couldn’t be more different yet each of them must face the war and the occupation of their country. Vianne must say goodbye to her husband, the only solid foundation she has ever had in her life, as he leaves to fight in the front. Isabelle is anxious to do something to assist in the war efforts, naive to the potential costs and sacrifices. Each sister grows and finds strength through horrible circumstances and rekindles a sisterly love and forgiveness for each other before the tragic end of the war.

The depth of characters in this story is what makes this book so exceptional. Vianne grows from a meek and passive young woman to finding her own voice even through immense tragedy and suffering. Isabelle joins the Resistance and makes an impact in the war yet when she returns home she finds that she is not the only one that has suffered and comes to understand her sister’s sacrifices, as well as their father’s.  The story is both moving and inspiring and there is a particular moment with the father that nearly brought me to tears.

This book has something for everyone and combine that with the great writing it’s no wonder it’s been so popular. Unless another book comes around before the new year, this book is the top contender for my favourite book of the year.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

“Every night I cut out my heart. But in the morning it was full again”

3/5 stars.
Hardcover, 307 pages.
Read from July 22, 2018 to July 29, 2018.

Is there a book list out there that doesn’t have this book on it somewhere? Probably not. This book has been awarded numerous accolades, most recently the Golden Man Booker prize for this year. As a Canadian, this book has been on my to-read list since my university days, especially since I have already read In the Skin of a Lion, which I sadly have no recollection of. Admittedly, I didn’t even know what this novel was about prior to picking it up so I was happy to see that the plot is set during WWII as I do enjoy historical-fiction from that era.

WWII may have just ended but not in the minds of those who were deeply involved in it Hana is a nurse who has refused to leave her post at a war-time hospital in Italy despite it being abandoned and still within the vicinity of landmines. She will not leave a burn patient who is barely alive and has no memory of who is he or how he got here. A family friend, who also served, comes to find Hana and ends up staying with her at the hospital. They are then joined later by an aloof stranger who is also can’t stop being a soldier and is having trouble letting go of the war that has traumatized them all.

As a reader, you are kept at length from all the characters in the book, despite their dire emotional states thus following how the characters themselves keep each other and their feelings also at a distance. At first, I was intrigued by the approach and eagerly read my way through the first half of the novel, however, the last half felt like a slog as the intrigue wore off and I realized how the story and the characters were going nowhere. The burned patient, this unknown person who has lost their memory, was initially very compelling especially with the relationship he had with Hana, but I felt the details of his story got too messy and drawn out that by the end that I didn’t end up really caring who he was despite his eventual connections to everyone. The story of this book is like a slow-moving dream including the muddiness that often comes when you dream.

With all that said, I did enjoy Hana’s character and story and there were aspects of this novel that I loved. The story transported me to the historical setting and I did find myself wrapped in that world long after I finished the novel. Many readers feel that this book is somewhat of a love story and I find that is a bit of stretch. I feel the story is more about on the characters trying to heal through each other from their individual traumas and the unique bond of the war that connects them in the strange abandoned hospital.

Ultimately, I did enjoy this novel I just wanted more out of the story than what was provided but it was still a worthwhile read. This story would suit any historical fiction fan and while I cannot remember much of the plot from In The Skin of a Lion, I read that the two are more meaningful if paired together.  Perhaps a re-read is in order?