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Novel sees story through autistic eyes

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This startlingly fresh semi-comic novel is told from the point of view of a 40-year-old autistic savant more attuned to fish than people.

Karen Nieto's brain is not programmed to tell a lie, or even pretty things up. To her, humans are just as strange as they'd be to an alien.

Though she is living and coping with people at age 41, she is still more at home diving in the deep sea and swimming with the tuna.

This is the quirky story of her life and her developing passion for the fish who cannot speak for themselves.

She is first taught to call herself Me, repeated over and over. She is not a thing, she is a person, a new concept.

A first novel by Mexican Sabina Berman, it begins with a woman, Isabelle, going to see the estate she has just inherited and finding out her deceased sister's secret -- a disowned autistic girl known as "the thing" who is living in the basement and wandering as a feral being on the estate.

The filthy non-verbal wild child, judged to be about eight years old, has been treated like a wild dog by Isabelle's "hard" sister and has the scars to prove it.

Isabelle sets about trying to civilize the child -- her newfound niece -- and save the family's Consolation Tuna factory from ruin.

When the child's special abilities come to light, the real fun begins.

Who knows how closely this novel, referred to simply as "Me" in many languages of translation, is able to capture the interior workings of an autistic savant's mind?

Berman is a journalist, poet and playwright with a mother who's a psychiatrist in Mexico, where they both live.

Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World deals with chilling issues but is strangely heartwarming and thoroughly entertaining, with an underlying eco-message and a surprise ending.

With all its undersea imagery, you can imagine it being adapted into an excellent movie, perfect for Imax.

It also contains a serious message for people concerned with marine wildlife and its frightening decline.

Berman's prose has been artfully translated from Spanish by American Lisa Dillman.

And it's funny, too.

Karen's scientific observations of her promiscuous roomie in university residence, who's having a busy time "mating" and "exchanging fluids," are typical of the literal humour in the book.

This charming novel challenges the so-called normal reader to dare to experience an alternative perception of the world.

It is a unique ride for any complacent humanoid.

 

Winnipegger Maureen Scurfield writes the Miss Lonelyhearts column for the Free Press.

Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World

By Sabina Berman, translation by Lisa Dillman

Henry Holt, 242 pages, $23

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 11, 2012 J8

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