Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World
by Sabina Berman

Henry Holt and Company, 2012. ISBN 978-0-805-09325-4.
Reviewed by Shawn LaTorre
Posted on 09/11/2012

Fiction: Multi-Cultural

For a first novel, Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World is warmly inviting to all readers, and especially to those who are aware of autism. Sabina Berman, the author, clearly masters the art of economy and pacing as any prize-winning playwright should and sweeps readers instantly onto the sands and into the water. Her main character, Karen Nieto, is described at the start as a "feral child, left alone to wander the vast beach property near her family's failing tuna cannery in Mazatlan, Mexico."

Karen is indeed very alone, but she is transformed over time with the help of her aunt Isabelle. Through Isabelle, Karen gains a better understanding of herself and a resigned regard for the way her brain operates: brain scans confirm she is both imbecile and genius.

"We're born into a tomb full of relics. Ancient works. Fixed sentences. Fixed customs..." Her aunt tells her this to help explain the awkward impressions of someone who suddenly wakes up on the theater set of life. Throughout the novel, Karen is confused by inconsistencies between what people say and what people do, definitions she learns and the connotations words carry. Luckily, her amazing talent for art coupled with her (albeit rather slow) problem-solving ability allow her to make inroads in school and in the cannery that she will inherit. Readers will identify with many of Karen's hopes, humiliations, and insights into the gossamer threads of existence.

Ms. Berman is genuine in her portrayal of this young, autistic leading lady. Karen is an animal lover who enjoys wearing a wetsuit, mask, and flippers around, even as an adult. Having spent time dangling from the raised nets of docked fishing boats, the sensation of resting in a net far above becomes a preferred state of being in her life. Several college students do an about-face upon entering the dorm to find their new roommate in her wetsuit, suspended in a net from the ceiling. Though humorous on the surface, readers who understand autism may also find tears a part of this wonderful odyssey.

Written simply from Karen's viewpoint, the story runs full circle, from a little urchin on the beach, through many life passages, and back again to the beach and sand. A rainstorm sets off a minor flashback, suddenly revealing a painful memory for Karen. Colors and visualizations are acute, as are word definitions, reminders placed throughout by Karen. Ms. Berman's sense for set design casts the story in primary splashes of red, yellow, and blue. Blues repeatedly evoke the ocean depths where tuna thrive in paradises conceived by Karen. Her life, it turns out, is inextricably linked with those tuna.

Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World highlights the importance of persistence and problem-solving if we are to consciously impact the earth's troubled ecology. It also raises some very tough questions.

Sabina Berman is a four-time winner of the Mexican National Theater Prize for her plays; she also writes film scripts, poetry, prose, and journalism, and has published several novellas. Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World, which will be published in twenty-five territories, is her first novel. She lives in Mexico.

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