Book Review: The Mermaid from Jeju, by Sumi Hahn

Image belongs to Alcove Press.

Title:   The Mermaid from Jeju
Author: Sumi Hahn
Genre: Fiction, historical fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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.

This is a gorgeous cover, isn’t it? I probably would have picked this book up for that reason alone, but the blurb intrigued me as well. And I’m glad I read this—although it’s not a happy, fluffy bunny book, by any means. This book is about sorrow and danger and unimaginable courage.

This isn’t a fast-paced book, although there’s a lot going on. The reader is firmly in Junja’s life and what happens to her, getting a feel for the culture and experiences she lives through in Jeju. If you’re looking for a deeply moving story, this is definitely the read for you.

Sumi Hahn was born in Korea. The Mermaid from Jeju is her first novel.

(Galley courtesy of Alcove Press in exchange for an honest review.)

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