Windswept islands protect, isolate and irrevocably shape the course of events in two new novels about the lives of people in far-flung places.
Readers who gravitate toward glorious prose will find a feast in The Dragonfly Sea, a mesmerizing new novel by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Dust, 2014) that delves into the discoveries, joys, sorrows and epiphanies of a singular coming of age—that of Ayaana, a stubborn, imaginative girl from a small island off the coast of Kenya who discovers that she can trace her heritage to a 14th-century Chinese seafarer.
Early in her life, Ayaana’s compass is set when her mother tells another character, “You shall only point my daughter to eternal possibilities. She was not born for limits.” From her childhood on Pate Island to her adventures in the Far East as a charming young woman, Ayaana’s life is marked by both violence and great beauty. Assorted characters alter her destiny, from a sailor who fills the role of the father she’s always wanted to a powerful Turkish mogul who seeks to possess her soul.
The story is deftly interwoven with a sense of life’s fragility, as if it’s holding its breath in anticipation of some danger. This feeling of vulnerability assails Ayaana: “Life was passage, nothing lingered.” Jealousies and troubled kinships affect husbands, fathers and lovers who travel on the ocean tides and are often lost, swept away by storms or twists of fate, but the author brings the story full circle with passages that dazzle and enlighten.
The singular culture of the haenyeo (sea women) of the Korean island of Jeju is at the center of bestselling author Lisa See’s captivating new novel, The Island of Sea Women, a quietly amazing story of two close companions whose friendship is transformed by misunderstanding, cultural prejudice and the terror of war.
Young-sook and Mi-ja are part of Jeju’s female free-diving collective, which forms the economic backbone of the island community in the years leading up to World War II. The friends are bound by ancient female spirits that watch over the island, and by the age-old ties of cooperation that enable their community’s survival. See interweaves details of the island’s semi-matriarchal culture with the adventures and travails of the two women, whose differences grow throughout the decades. Poignant chapters reveal the perspective of an aging Young-sook as she encounters the family of her old friend, forcing her to confront past missteps and the horrors of a 60-year-old massacre, ultimately bringing the generations together to forgive and heal.
Within this enthralling story is a fascinating historical perspective on Korea, a country long victimized by war and foreign occupation, and the ways in which the strains of modernization have forever altered Jeju’s island culture.