It's not a nice world out there. This is especially true if you're a chubby, unattractive, and underachieving, though not unintelligent, teen. It's even worse when you have no friends your own age, no father, and a sickly, bedridden mother who loves you but can't pay the bills and who has of late turned to drink. Melanie Tamaki, the young protagonist of Hiromi Goto's Half World, is keenly aware both of her own shortcomings and of the precipice on which she and her mother teeter. Homelessness looms and it's hard to imagine anything worse. Until it happens.
One late afternoon, following yet another day of being bullied at school, Melanie is hanging out by an old dock, surrounded by a flock of crows who for some reason have always been fond of her. She watches as the birds drop mussels from a great height in order to crack their shells and eat them. Are they offering her food? Melanie is hungry, but there's no food to be had at home, and she's contemplating a visit with Ms. Wei, the elderly lesbian who owns the local market and who, other than the crows, is her only real friend. Suddenly
Something fell with a hollow tock upon the gray slats of the old dock. It didn't at all sound like a mussel. Melanie glanced down.
It was a fortune cookie. Neatly split in half. (p. 18)
The fortune reads "Go Home." Melanie realizes that the crows are all staring at her. She follows the improbable fortune cookie's advice and breaks out in a run. When she gets to her cold apartment, the front door hangs open and her mother is gone. She does not return.
In a Prologue to Half World Goto has given us a creation story of sorts, a myth, in which the universe consists of three realms, the Realm of the Flesh, the Realm of the Spirit, and Half World. When we die in the flesh, she tells us, it is our nature to go to Half World where we relive our moments of greatest trauma, working through these awful experiences over and over again until we make them right. Eventually, perfected, we go on to the Realm of the Spirit, existing in a pure state for some seemingly endless period of time, until we are called back to the flesh. All three realms are of equal importance, in perfect balance, and there is no end to the cycle. At least that's the theory. In fact, millennia ago something went terribly wrong. The ways from realm to realm are blocked. The evils of the flesh are building up in our realm. The spirits, with no way to return to the flesh, are becoming more and more ethereal and distant, less and less human. Those being who were trapped in Half World when the cycle broke down must undergo their traumas repeatedly, but with no hope of redemption, and most have been driven mad by the constant pain of their situation. The entire universe is in a state of imminent collapse. As is so often the case with myths, however, or fantasy novels for that matter, there is a faint hope of salvation in the form of a prophesy that a child will be born under impossible circumstances and will return the realms to balance.
To reveal that Melanie is that child is not to give away any of this wondrous and often grim young adult novel's secrets. We know it, or at least can guess it, from the very beginning. Several things keep us reading, however. The first is the headlong pacing and powerful focus of the girl's quest. What starts out as a breathless search for her mother, soon develops into an archetypal, touching, and oddly believable voyage of self-discovery. The second is the spectacular nature of Half World itself, a surreal and terrifying pocket universe which reads like a cross between Naraka, the Buddhist version of Purgatory where sinners work off their karmic debts, and some of the more hellish visions of Hieronymus Bosch, to which it is explicitly compared. This nightmare world is brought beautifully (or perhaps hideously) to life by both Goto's strongly visual descriptions and the cover art and interior illustrations of the acclaimed graphic artist Jillian Tamaki, though the fact that she shares a last name with the protagonist is something of a mystery. I particularly loved the bridge of living birds and the various descriptions of the denizens of Half World. A third strength of the tale is found in Goto's ghastly villain, Mr. Glueskin,
a tall, overly pale man, with tousled white hair. ... His face was gaunt but his skin seemed to hang from his bones, as if it were too loose. He wore a plastic raincoat that ended high above his skinny knees, and his sticklike legs were ensconced in large black rubber boots. (p. 79-80)
Mr. Glueskin can expand his mouth to enormous size, swallowing his victims whole, and shoot out his tongue like a frog, sticking to his enemies' faces and suffocating them. He takes a sadistic delight in the evil he perpetrates:
"Idiot!" Mr. Glueskin began giggling. He flicked her name badge with an overlong finger. "Your name is Glaaaadys! You don't even know your own name! Ohhh, good help is soooo hard to find. Maybe I should just eat you up and order up another maid instead?" He made a smacking, slurping sound and Melanie felt faint. (p. 126)
Despite its many wonders and its satisfying conclusion, Half-World is not, perhaps, without flaws. At some points it feels too short. I would like to have seen significantly more of Melanie's mother, and more specifically of their relationship in the Realm of the Flesh. As is, she serves as little more than an extra, though her small role near the end of the book as Mr. Glueskin's arm candy and assistant is fascinating and I can't help wondering how this came about. Further, the introduction of Melanie's long-lost father late in the book seems fragmented and incomplete. He had seemed heroic in his brief early appearance in the tale, standing up to monstrous beings to the best of his ability to do so, but near the end he's pathetic. How did this happen? What turned him into the chubby lecher he has become in Half-World? In an era when 350 page YA novels are the norm, this brief, 225 page tale could easily have filled in some of this background material. Still, these are minor quibbles. Hiromi Goto's Half World is a powerful and marvelous story, one likely to appeal to both mature teens and adult readers alike.
Michael Levy teaches English at an obscure Wisconsin university and is a past president of both the Science Fiction Research Association and The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.