Half World by Hiromi Goto. Originally published by Viking, 2009. Approx. 225 pages.
"Melanie Tamaki is an outsider. The only child of a loving but neglectful mother is just barely coping with school and with life. But everything changes on the day she returns home to find her mother is missing, lured back to Half World by the vindictive Mr. Glueskin. Soon Melanie begins an epic and darkly fantastical journey to save her parents. What she does not yet realize is that the future of the universe depends upon her success."
"Melanie Tamaki is human—but her parents aren’t. They are from Half World, a Limbo between our world and the afterlife, and her father is still there. When her mother disappears, Melanie must follow her to Half World—and neither of them may return alive. Imagine Coraline as filmed by the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (Howl’s Moving Castle), or Neil Gaiman collaborating with Charles de Lint. Half World is vivid, visceral, unforgettable, a combination of prose and images that will haunt you."
The foundation for Half World is that our realms of existence consist of a balance of three worlds: the physical world (where we are living now), the Spirit World, where spirits roam until they are born again into the physical world, and Half World, which correlates with most preconceptions of limbo, where wrongs are righted, regrets worked out, all that kind of stuff, before a spirit ascends to that realm.
The problem is; the balance between the three realms has somehow become broken. And, if this isn't corrected in due time, it will spell disaster for the inhabitants of all three worlds.
Enter into this situation young Melanie Tamaki. Melanie is an outsider; bullied at her school, in a nameless, urban setting. She has a distant mother who grows weaker every day, and falls deeper into an alcoholic stupor. She has never met her father. Her weight and her social status make her a prime target for the gangs of local kids. Her only solace seems to be in books; and a kind of friendship with a local shopkeeper named Ms. Wei.
And then, things go from bad to worse. Melanie's mother disappears, and she starts receiving weird messages and instructions from a mysterious character known as Mr. Glueskin. She is instructed to go to a place called Half World if she wishes to save her mother. Confused and afraid, Melanie sets off on a quest that will change her life, and possibly the world.
What Melanie never knew was that her mother (and father as well) were inhabitants of Half World. Not only that, but they had done what was though to be impossible there: they conceived a child. This posed a danger to those that wished to perpetuate the Half World status quo: because a prophecy stated that the only way to restore the balance was if a human child was born in Half World. However, how this relates to Melanie is uncertain; she is a human child conceived in Half World, yet born in the realm of Life.
These and other discoveries unfold for Melanie as she tries to puzzle together what is going on; and more importantly, how she can save her mother.
So, the rest of the book is all about the journey and the discoveries. I won't get too much into that for the sake of avoiding spoilers. Let's just look at how the book is put together.
The blurb above mentions very well that this book is an attempt to present Coraline through a Miyazaki filter. I have to admit, there is a great deal of accuracy to that assessment . And, unfortunately, Half World fails to hit the lofty standards of either (which is fine, since they are the apex examples of their genres). The thing is, it is fairly evident that they tried to do it; where some aspects of this book are great, others seem manufactured, engineered, or ham-handedly thrust in.
As a central character, Melanie shines. She is well realized and fleshed out. She isn't a convenient hero, with all the right answers at all the right times. She is often afraid, angry, physically weak. She is what a lot of us probably were at that age; not really the right stuff for the hero of the day. And I understand that all the focus is and should be on her. The problem is that the realization of secondary and ancillary characters suffers too much in the process.
Also, given that we can accept that there are fantastical elements to each of the worlds, there are so many questions that are left open-ended and unanswered; or, which don't make much sense to begin with. For example, we get a satisfactory example as to why the harmony between the worlds was disrupted, but how exactly were Melanie's parents able to conceive her (it is a real shame that we don't get more backstory on these potentially dynamic characters). What is the point of the prophecy being what it is? What is the point of Melanie's closeness with crows, both in the realm of Life and in Half World?
Goto creates a fantastic array of outlandish hybrid denizens of Half World. And yet, after the reasoning is revealed, the book would have been enriched so much by a bit of exposition as to what made them create those personas for themselves. For example, the toll collector. It is compelling imagery to have a stone giant that forces you to bite off your pinkie finger as a payment to pass, but what is the basis for this? And apparently it doesn't have to be your own finger either. So, any Half Worlder who wanted to visit the realm of Life and cause some havoc could just kidnap another denizen, bite off their finger, waltz through, and do what they need to. Now, given that Melanie's mother existed in the realm of Life for 14 years as a Half Worlder, Mr. Glueskin could've come over any time and just taken her. But I digress.
Speaking of Mr. Glueskin, to give credit where it is due, he makes a great villain. He is the ultimate vicious bully, and trying to imagine his appearance yields terrifying results.
On the other hand, Melanie's mentor of sorts, Ms. Wei, comes off as a wizened little old Chinese woman version of Yoda. I don't care how well she cooks, or that she was a lesbian, it doesn't make her any less trope-y.
However, the "tools" which Melanie receives to aid her in her quest; namely Jade Rat and the Magic 8 Ball, are very well though out and executed.
This brings us to the world building, which is a big selling point to a book like this. Certain scenes are done extraordinarily well, such as the nameless town in which Melanie lives, the mountain that leads to the gate between portals, and Mr. Glueskin's hotel. However, there was a huge fumble in one of the money shots - the scene in which Melanie first takes in the bizarre landscape of Half World. Here, Goto tries too hard to go for the fantastic, and the obvious attempt at channeling the imagery of Bosch comes off more like the old Wackyland episodes of Looney Tunes.
All in all, Half World is a true mixed bag; some good, a bit of great, and a lot of ok. You can go in for extra points if you are big on diversity checklists; i.e. authors of color, protagonists of color, implied LGBT themes, etc.
I would say just stick with Coraline or Spirited Away for a better world execution. For all the imaginative inputs that obviously went into this tale, it seems the glue that was so desperately needed to hold the narrative together was all used up in constructing the villain. However, I am happy that I got to know Melanie. In the end, Half World is indeed worth reading, if only for a stellar protagonist.
Actually, cover score and illustrations. An added bonus to the book is the interior illustrations by Jillian Tamaki. I mean, she just has a great, deceptively simple, yet immensely evocative style. You just wish there were more pictures.
Cover Final Score: