the mermaid from jeju

The Mermaid from Jeju by Sumi Hahn

The Mermaid from Jeju by Sumi Hahn is a novel about the juxtaposition of the magical way of traditional Korean living and the political unrest of the post-war peninsula. Korea is still very much affected by the Japanese invasion that took place in the first half of the century, and it also has to quickly accommodate the ever-growing presence of American soldiers on its land. Against this troublesome backdrop, we get to meet Junja, a sea village girl, whose life seems to be a calm and idyllic journey to becoming a woman. But when Junja reaches a certain age and is officially considered a woman, everything changes. Her request to fulfil one of her mother’s duties instead of letting the older woman do it, sets her life off course and binds it to the whole of her country’s fate. It is through her eyes that we get to see more and more of the intricate ways in which Korea is divided by the different ways of thinking and by the fear that belonging to one group or another may land a person in serious trouble.

Junja’s story is about the search for identity, the desperate need to re-encounter one’s true sense of belonging. At the beginning of the novel, Junja knows who she is, what her values are, where she belongs in the physical space. This sense of belonging is brought into question as the story progresses, and the idea of being an important part of her community is what she struggles to regain throughout the rest of The Mermaid from Jeju. During those changing times, this young girl has to find her footing on shaky ground, and has to go on a journey of self discovery where she can finally understand what her country means to her.

Behind the ugliness of this political unrest that provides that main theme of The Mermaid from Jeju, there lies the magical beauty of traditional Korean thinking. The stories of the sea king are woven through the threads of politics, giving hope for a better future by offering solid beliefs where roots can grow and thrive.

The Mermaid from Jeju is Korean-American writer Sumi Hahn’s debut novel. It is beautifully written and engaging from beginning to end. While Junja is the ‘official’ main character of the novel, her grandmother is the pillar of not only her family, but of her whole community as well. The old woman is an extremely interesting character. Enigmatic, smart and level-headed, she is the embodiment of the direction Junja has to follow. Thanks to her experience with the Japanese soldiers, she quickly recognises the danger the Americans are bringing to her island, and practically sets the whole narrative in motion. She was my favorite character from the novel. I would have loved to find out more about her, but I understand why Sumi Hahn left her character only semi-drawn. This way she can keep her core identity to herself, not letting anything or anyone interfere with her beliefs.

My Rating

Sumi Hahn’s The Mermaid from Jeju deserves a Four Fox Rating. 🦊🦊🦊🦊

I highly recommend this book, but if you do decide to read it, make sure you know a little bit about Korean history. I didn’t know anything, and so I had to Google various things while reading which did disrupt my flow a little bit.

Discussion Points

What did you learn about Korea by reading this novel?

What did you find most interesting about the island of Jeju and its connection to its inhabitants?

Who was your favorite character and why?

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