Book Talk: *ME, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World*, by Sabina Berman (SA)

ME, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World
Sabina Berman (Blog) (Goodreads)
Translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman
Henry Holt and Co. (2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0805093257 / 9780805093254)
Fiction, 256 pages

A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (August 17, 2012). Shelf Awareness provided an Advance Reader’s Copy (via the publisher) and monetary compensation.

Opening lines:

… the sea …
… and the white sand beach …
The sea flecked with sunlight all the way out to the horizon.
* * *
Then the white sand beach, where the waves roll in, dissolve into foam. And, up in the sky, a sun full of white fire.
* * *
I’m thirsty.
I’m going to stop writing and go get a glass of water.
* * *
And then, suddenly, 1 day, a girl, wearing socks and huaraches, sitting on a red blanket on the white sand.”

As a college student, Karen Nieto was tested by a psychology class–that is, the class studied and tested her, and ultimately rendered a diagnosis: “highly functioning autistic.” In 90% of the areas they analyzed, her scores were those of a young child; in the other 10%, she was a certified genius. With the support of her aunt and an unusual business partnership, Karen is given unexpected opportunities to develop that 10% as she works with creatures who rarely test her–deep-sea tuna–and finds ways to cope with creatures who nearly always do–other humans.

Karen Nieto is a remarkable character, and Mexican playwright/poet Sabina Berman’s rendering of her unusual voice and personality in this, her debut novel, is equally remarkable. ME, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World wouldn’t work well as anything other than a first-person narrative; a large part of its success depends on making the reader engage with the world of the novel as Karen does, and Karen’s ways of engagement are very particular, beginning with the fact that animals and nature make far more sense to her than people do. In that context, it might seem paradoxical that the work that saves her family’s fishery business and ultimately brings her renown and riches involves developing more humane ways to cultivate tuna for the high-end consumer market, but she doesn’t see it that way. However, it does attract the unwelcome attention of a militant animal-rights group.

Through Karen, Berman explores some of the complicated issues surrounding modern agriculture in a way that never feels heavy-handed, and more importantly, she makes a potentially off-putting character sympathetic. ME, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World is a beautifully-written. emotionally affecting debut featuring a protagonist whose “different abilities” include surprising and charming the reader.

Book description, via the publisher’s website:
As intimate as it is profound, and as clear-eyed as it is warmhearted, ME, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World marks an extraordinary debut by the award-winning Mexican playwright, journalist, and poet Sabina Berman. 

Karen Nieto passed her earliest years as a feral child, left alone to wander the vast beach property near her family’s failing tuna cannery. But when her aunt Isabelle comes to Mexico to take over the family business, she discovers a real girl amidst the squalor. So begins a miraculous journey for autistic savant Karen, who finds freedom not only in the love and patient instruction of her aunt but eventually at the bottom of the ocean swimming among the creatures of the sea. Despite how far she’s come, Karen remains defined by the things she can’t do—until her gifts with animals are finally put to good use at the family’s fishery. Her plan is brilliant: Consolation Tuna will be the first humane tuna fishery on the planet. Greenpeace approves, fame and fortune follow, and Karen is swept on a global journey that explores how we live, what we eat, and how our lives can defy even our own wildest expectations.

Somewhat Related Reading: Shelf Awareness review of
American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food, by Andrew F. Smith

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