Any title with mermaid is going to attract my attention. While The Mermaid from Jeju isn’t about mermaids, it’s instead about haenyeo – female deep sea divers. Which is still pretty amazing – speaking as someone who cannot swim well and would never be able to deep sea dive anything. But The Mermaid from Jeju is a story about war, sacrifice, and grief. Keep reading this book review to find out my full thoughts!
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. Junja, a sea village girl, has never been to the mountains, where it smells like mushrooms and earth, and it is there she falls in love with a mountain boy Yang Suwol, who rescues her after a particularly harrowing journey. But when Junja returns one day later, it is just in time to see her mother take her last breath, beaten by the waves during a dive she was taking in Junja’s place.
Spiraling in grief, Junja sees her younger siblings sent to live with their estranged father, Suwol is gone, the ghost of her mother haunts their home–from the meticulously tended herb garden that has now begun to sprout weeds, to the field where their bed sheets are beaten. She has only her grandmother and herself. But the world moves on without Junja.
The political climate is perilous. Still reeling from Japan’s forced withdrawal from the peninsula, Korea is forced to accommodate the rapid establishment of US troops, and her grandmother, who lived through the Japanese invasion that led to Korea’s occupation understands the signs of danger all too well. When Suwol is arrested for working with and harboring communists, and the perils of post-WWII overtake her homelands, Junja must learn to navigate a tumultuous world unlike anything she’s ever known.
(Disclaimer: I received this book from the Libro.fm. This has not impacted my review which is unbiased and honest.)
TW: war crimes, murder, massacre
The Mermaid from Jeju captivated me from the beginning. Set in the midst of both the aftermath of WWII, the withdrawal of Japanese troops, and the influx of American ones, Jeju is in turbulent waters. Everything can change in a moment. Junja’s story describes the tenuous natures of these moments. When we are accused without reason and removed without consideration (to say the least). The Mermaid of Jeju is rife with political tension which begin brewing under the surface. From the outsider perspective we are able to see that the waters she is swimming in is full of danger.
The Mermaid of Jeju is a story that is full of action and intrigue. Readers examine the lines of loyalty, honor, and forgiveness. While the dual timeline confused me, towards the end the pieces begin to come together. It’s a book about the roles and futures we see for each other and ourselves. Mixing some fantasy into The Mermaid of Jeju, it was a captivating read that not only educated me about the history of Jeju, but also a story about forgiveness and the past.
At the end, some elements disappointed me. Considering how much subject matter Hahn brings up – religion, war crimes, forgiveness – I would have liked to have some more resolution or depth in a few side plots/characters. However, The Mermaid from Jeju was still a captivating and entertaining read. As someone who has wanted to visit Jeju, I am glad I was able to read about some of its history which I had never heard of before.