The Woman Who Dived into the Heart of the World is the debut novel from Sabina Berman – successful Mexican playwright. The novel is wonderfully translated by Lisa Dillman and is a little reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
The novel opens with Isabelle moving from her home in California to take over the family Tuna Company back in her birthplace of Mexico. Upon arriving she is to live in a dilapidated grand house and take her place as the head of the Tuna cannery. In her first few days in the house Isabelle discovers a feral child living in the basement and finds that this is her abandoned Niece. Isabelle takes her in, cleans her up and begins to teach her how to live within society.
Quickly we discover that the child, named Karen by Isabelle, is an Autistic Savant and holds many important gifts. The novel explores Karen’s life as she grows and becomes a successful businesswoman within the Tuna Company. She has an affinity with animals and her mind is only settled when out diving. This is when she hits on the idea of Consolation Tuna becoming the first humane tuna fishery.
The beauty of the novel comes from the innocence of Karen and how fragile her mind is. She is a character that the reader can fall in love with, even if we occasionally laugh at her missteps in polite conversation. It’s this clear vision of Karen’s that sculpts the book’s plot, but also its narrative. Berman has used simple clipped sentences to command the language and Karen will always refer to herself as ‘me’ – the first word she learnt. It’s an introverted novel despite taking in various glamorous locations around the world. For all its outlandish façade the story is small, shy and delicate.
Of course, approaching the subject of Autism is a tricky thing to do and is not without its pitfalls. There are many moments of heartbreak and emotional turmoil. Karen is a genius in many aspects but in more social climates she falters, is brusque and sometimes offensive. This leads to moments of embarrassment, but interestingly more for the reader than Karen as she is unaware of any faux pas. Berman approaches these moments usually with a little light humour which takes away any shame on the audience’s part. Karen’s inability to shake hands or look someone in the eye, quickly becomes a very endearing quality.
Karen’s attitude is incredibly uplifting throughout. She approaches everything simply, sees every scenario in black and white. To her, humans are too complicated. At times it’s like watching a child in a room of adults but wouldn’t we all want to have that attitude sometimes?
Sabina Berman expertly picks apart society and our attitudes towards the food we eat and the price we put on the wildlife of our planet. It’s a book that makes you think and is entirely relevant to our world today. The only real downside for me is the ending which is very anticlimactic and leaves the story to kind of fizzle out. Regardless, it’s a charming read and one that in the end is uplifting and full of hope.
Published by Simon & Schuster. This book was kindly sent by the publisher for review.