Half World by Hiromi Goto

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Hiromi Goto is a Japanese-Canadian writer who’s been publishing since 1994, and she just keeps winning awards. Her work ranges from realistic to fantastical in varying degrees, and she’s written for adults, children and now young adult. Most of her books have focused on Japanese immigrant experiences in Canada. But while the protagonist of her latest, Half World (winner of the 2009 Carl Brandon Parallax award), is clearly of Japanese descent, it’s more or less incidental to the story.

I’m gonna start this off by quoting from the Prologue, since I couldn’t put it better than Goto herself:

Long, long, long ago, before mortals began to inscribe mortal religions onto stone tablets and parchment, there was a time of the Three Realms: the Realm of Flesh, the Realm of Spirit, and Half World. For eons it was a time of wholeness and balance; Life, After Life, and Half Life were as natural as awake, asleep, and dreaming. All living things died only to awaken in the dream land of Half World. Mortals awoke to the moment of the greatest trauma they had experienced during their time in the Realm of Flesh. In Half World they relived Half Lives, until they had worked through their burdens of mortal ills, through trial and tribulation. Wrongdoings, doubts, fears, terror, pain, hatred, suffering, all the ills of mortality had to be integrated and resolved before they could rise from mortal fetters into light and Spirit. Once in the Realm of Spirit, all physical cares disappeared. Spirits existed freely, unbounded by mortality and suffering, untroubled by Flesh, in a state pure and holy. Until eventually their light began to grow dim, and they were called back into Flesh once more. For without connections to Life, Spirit, too, shall pass away.

But something happened to the three Realms, long ago. The connections were severed, and all the mortals and spirits were trapped in a single Realm. Mortals were reborn again as mortal flesh, without any chance for rest or reconciliation with their suffering, and the suffering multiplied. The half-lives in Half World were trapped into an even uglier cycle, without birth or death, doomed to be pulled back into their most traumatic moments over and over again, never moving on. The people began to grow monstrous as result of their endless torment. Spirit faded and grew distant, without the renewal of Life.

And in the madness of Half World, an impossible thing happened: Fumiko Tamaki became pregnant. A prophecy states that a child born in Half-World would reunite the three Realms, restoring the balance of cycles. But a very powerful creature calling himself Mr. Glueskin doesn’t want that to happen, so he chases down Fumiko and her husband Shinobu, forcing Fumiko through the one gate left between the Realms in order to bear her child in the Realm of Flesh. And so, Melanie Tamaki grows up in familiar, fleshly Vancouver with her strange, sickly, half-aware mother. Until one day, when Melanie is 14 years old, and Mr. Glueskin calls Fumiko back to him, for punishment. Melanie must go into Half World herself, to rescue her mother and play her part in fulfilling the prophecy.

The book is a quick read, just 200 pages, with the occasional lovely illustration by Jillian Tamaki. I’m afraid Melanie was a bit underdeveloped, but she’s a good kid - a poor and lonely outcast with little to prepare her for her trial by fire, but she’s stronger and quicker than she gives herself credit for, and insists on the right choices in the end. Half World is a very strange place, grotesque and tragic. I had some unanswered questions about why Half World is the way it is, if it’s been cut off from the Realm of Flesh for so long, but…this just isn’t that sort of book. More than a few inexplicable things happen without regard for internal logic, and sometimes that’s just the kind of story a story is. The analytical pedant in me loves a well-executed world-building, but something less definable in me loves a good fairytale too, more symbolic than solid. Half World has the logic of nightmares.

Half World, like so many great young adult novels before it, is about a young person learning to deal with the world as an adult, without the protection of parents, overcoming fear and being responsible for their own choices. It’s also about balance, and renewal, and the need for healing and forgiveness.