As the evocative title suggests, the debut novel by acclaimed Mexican playwright, poet and author Sabina Berman centers on its extraordinary, endearing narrator, Me. This is what Karen Nieto, a high-functioning woman with autism, calls herself, and through her imagined journal Berman offers readers unfettered entry into her often feared and misunderstood perspective.
Karen is an undeniably unusual girl. She lived feral and isolated until the start of the novel, when she is discovered and rehabilitated by her aunt, the new owner of the family’s canned tuna business in Mazatlan. She lives emotionally disconnected and apart from others because “I seem not to feel all those complicated things and imaginary things that standard humans feel,” an attribute some might view as debilitating, but she views as an advantage.
Though her IQ scores “somewhere between idiot and imbecile,” she has her own sort of intelligence. When she eventually attends college, she wears a smart yet comical yellow label alerting people to those “Different Abilities,” deepens her distaste for Descartes and hangs from a harness to soothe herself. Instead of mingling at parties, she observes fly behavior so intently she eventually invents a fly zapper, content in her separate world. “I realized that was how it would always be for Me,” she says, “close to humans but far away.”
But though the book is set in Mexico, with a later move to Japan, Karen’s trajectory and broad outlines — and thus Berman’s plot — hugs close to that of American doctor and author Temple Grandin, the high-functioning autistic woman who revolutionized humane cattle slaughter. There’s no escaping the many parallels: Karen becomes to tuna what Grandin is to cattle. This apparent borrowing of Grandin’s attributes and story detracts from pure enjoyment of Berman’s narrative and imagination, but it doesn’t corrupt all. Her light touch and subtle humor allow Karen to take her own distinct, magnetic shape, and she elevates what could be a simple storyline into an engaging tale of compassion for animals, people and self atop a richer backdrop of the world’s struggle with overfishing.
But Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World is ultimately successful because Berman’s narrative gently nudges readers to join Karen in the larger endeavor of navigating not only our role with animals and the sea but also human emotional connection. For Karen, “[r]esembling a standard human would turn out to be a tremendous effort that took many years of practice and much discipline,” since she doesn’t feel the ways humans “normally” feel. But Berman hints that we might all take her cue and learn that “the most basic, most happy form of happiness is simply feeling with your senses. Thinking with your eyes and skin and tongue and nose and ears.” Like Karen, we might rest on the bottom of the metaphorical sea and just be ourselves. Or as Karen puts it, be Me.
Christine Thomas is a writer in Hawaii.