In Hiromi Goto’s 2009 novel Half World, the world is divided between the Realm of Flesh, the Realm of Spirit, and a Half World that bridges them. In ages past, humans cycled through these worlds; people lived and died in the Realm of Flesh and they were reborn in the Half World, where they were purged of their sins and traumas. Once purged, they were reborn in the paradisiacal Spirit World, from which they will fall, to be reborn in the Realm of Flesh. So the cycle began again. It’s basic Buddhist cosmogony at work.
But somehow, nobody is quite sure how, this cycle was shattered. The inhabitants of each realm have been trapped in their realms, reborn over and over into the same circumstances. This is hardest on the Half Worlders, who must relive their traumas over and over. The worlds are stuck in stasis.
a Half World woman becomes pregnant. Somehow; the rules of the Half World should not allow that. Until she and her husband become desperate enough to pay an exorbitant toll so that mother and child can escape the Half World for the temporary refuge offered by the Realm of Flesh. This child is destined to break the stasis. Or at least may be; precisely what such a child would have to do to fulfil their destiny is unknown.
Young Melanie Tamaki, the child who has escaped the Half World, hasn’t the slightest idea of any of this. As far as she is concerned, she isn’t someone with a Big Destiny; she’s just a fat girl whom the bullies love to target. She and her mother live in abject poverty, a poverty deepened by her mother’s descent into alcoholism.
One day Melanie’s mother vanishes, having been dragged back into the Half World by the malevolent Mr. Glueskin. As Glueskin gleefully informs the daughter, if she wants to see her mother again, she will have to make the passage back to the Half World.
Perhaps Melanie has it within her power to redeem her mother’s world and to end the long stasis … but she has no idea how this is to be done. All she can think to do is stay alive while evading the glutinous Mr. Glueskin.
Centuries trapped in trauma, reliving the most horrific events of their lives, have had unfortunate effects on the denizens of Half World. And if Mr. Glueskin has any say in the matter, Melanie will never escape the world of horrors over which he gleefully rules.
There is apparently a sequel to this novel but this book functions as a standalone.
This is a fairly short novel but it manages to pack an impressive number of disturbing images into its 200+ pages. Unpleasantness starts with Melanie’s futile efforts to avoid harassment and beatings at the hands of the school elite. If her Vancouver school has any sort of anti-bullying program, there is very little evidence of it in this book. And this is the cheeriest part of the book; the Half World is replete with even more graphic horrors, which the author’s skillful prose reveals in great detail.
On the plus side, it would have been trivial for the author to make Melanie and her parents (who were both willing to pay terrible costs to protect their daughter) the only decent people in a terrible world. That’s not true; Melanie faces tremendous challenges, but she does not face them alone.
I know that kids like dark fiction (just check out the YA best sellers), but I never expected the sheer quantity of horror to be found in this one short novel; I admit that it is all very skilfully done. Recommended for teens and adults who like that kind of thing. I don’t think I do but I can admire the author’s skill.
Half World won the 2009 Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award. It is available here.