Jeju, the island setting of veteran Seattle music and food writer Sumi Hahn’s debut novel, “The Mermaid from Jeju,” is said to have been formed when a giant grandmother named Seolmundae shoveled seven scoops of dirt into the sea. In another creation myth, the earth that formed the Korean island was not dropped by a hulking grandma, but by a dragon who grabbed handfuls of sand as a wave pulled her into the ocean.
In the Jeju of Hahn’s imagination, everything on the island is imbued with ancient magic. The ocean is the domain of the sea king. The rocks are “teardrops of Grandma Seolmundae’s five hundred sons.” And the haenyeo, the women freedivers who harvest mollusks, octopus and kelp, resemble mermaids to those outside their exclusive clan.
The myths, magic and superstitions of Jeju sustained its people through centuries of foreign intrusion. Following three decades of Japanese occupation, Korea became one of many sites in the mid-20th century where the global ideological battle between communism and Americanism played out. The majority of “The Mermaid From Jeju” takes place in the whiplash era between Japanese and American occupation.
In 1944, Junja, an 18-year-old haenyeo, offers to run one of her mother’s most arduous annual errands: a daylong hike to Hallasan to trade a basket of abalone for a piglet. When Junja arrives, the Yang family of Cloud House Farm bandage her bloody feet, feed her exceptionally well and let her sleep under their silk blankets. The greatest novelty of the trip is one of the Yang sons, a boy named Suwol, who wears a scholar’s band around his head and asks her grandiose questions like, “Have you ever thought about the kind of life you’d like to live?”
When Junja returns from her trek, still dazed and smitten, she finds that her mother has suffered a fatal beating. Men from her village start to disappear, and more planes fly overhead. Junja wonders why the Japanese soldiers leave her village so abruptly, but soon finds an answer in the sea as “bloated fish washed up, bleached an evil white.”
Before she was an experienced haenyeo, Junja had a diving accident as a child that caused her to briefly lose consciousness and hallucinate. Her grandmother, a haenyeo herself, begged Junja to recall her “sea dream” for years, believing something of significance had to be born of her accident. When Junja finally relays the dream, readers see that it forecasts her future in America perfectly: “Everything was strange and foreign under the sea. I couldn’t understand the language of the fishes very well, but I lived in a house as big as a palace and was very rich … I lived a comfortable life under the sea for many years. But I still felt homesick for the village.”
Many believe that dreams, to some extent, can serve as a medium for interpreting the problems of conscious life. In “The Mermaid From Jeju,” the tacit question underlying many of Hahn’s narrative choices seems to be: Why bother interpreting when you can just solve?
In the chaos of war, losing track of family members and friends is an expected outcome. When Junja and Dr. Moon, her eventual husband, leave Korea after witnessing unthinkable atrocities, they leave many behind, fates unknown. This uncertainty is a brutal feature of diaspora, yet it reflects the reality of most Koreans forced to leave their homes. When faced with such ambiguity, deus ex machina is perhaps a tempting literary fix, but what is the value of such a device?
In 2001, following Junja’s death, Dr. Moon returns to Jeju for the first time to seek out a shaman. He’s been having confusing visions, where the meaning isn’t so easily extracted.
The shaman, in an exorbitantly priced ritual, is able to deliver Dr. Moon answers through five consecutive visions. In a single transaction, he sees the fates of both of his parents, his former lieutenant and even his wife’s first love, Suwol.
But the literary contrivance that brought Dr. Moon comfort in the last pages of the novel may not readily transfer to readers. After Hahn immerses her readers in the ruthless realities of war for so many pages, such a tight closure feels artificial. The impulse to tie up every loose end relieves the reader of the discomfort of uncertainty. It suggests that all we need to solve the intractable problem of memory is a little magic.