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September 17, 2012 | by  | in Arts Books |
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Review – The Woman Who Dived Into The Heart Of The World

Novel by Sabina Berman

Occasionally, I am very surprised by a book.

Mexican playwright Sabina Berman’s first novel The Woman Who Dived into the Heart of the World looks like the sort of novel I usually hate, largely due to its blurb, which does everything in its power to make the book sound awful. Every cliché imaginable is represented: “and then begins the greatest journey of all, as Karen learns how to become ‘Me’…”, “It is a voyage of discovery that will take her to the bottom of the ocean, and into the heart of the world”.

So my expectations upon picking up the novel were not high. And I was therefore very surprised when I was unable to put it down.

The story is told in the first person from the perspective of an autistic girl named Karen, and stylistically it’s brilliant; written in the simplistic and literal-minded manner a little reminiscent of a grown-up version of the protagonist from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The book distances you from its action—numbers are always written out as symbols rather than words, for example, and paragraphs and sentences often begin with a numerical value: “1 day”. Smiley faces, accompanied by a description of the person’s expression (“…but then he put on a Friendly Face ☺”) are inserted to represent the effort it takes Karen to understand the expressions of those around her. Little touches like these make the reader feel like we are seeing the world as Karen does.

Rather than focusing solely on the relationship between Karen and her aunt Isabelle (which is what the blurb implies), Berman expands her narrative over the entirety of Karen’s life, so that we see her life and struggles to fit into the world played out in more spheres than merely the domestic. Throughout the course of the story Karen becomes involved in bringing her aunt’s tuna company into the Japanese market, which is the section of the book I enjoyed most, adding a cultural barrier to the communicative difficulties Karen must already deal with.

It’s a wonderful novel, and well worth a read.

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