The Woman Who Dived Into the Heart of the World

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9781849833431: The Woman Who Dived Into the Heart of the World

In the wake of her sister's death, Isabelle moves from her home in California to her birthplace in Mexico to take over the running of the family tuna company. There, she discovers a wild child with no name, who turns out to be the autistic niece she never knew she had. Isabelle names the girl Karen. So begins a miraculous journey for Karen.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Sabina Berman lives in Mexico and is a highly acclaimed playwright and screenwriter. This is her first novel.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
 
... 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, her knees pulled up against her chest. A skinny, gawky girl, rocking back and forth, whispering:
Me.
Over and over:
Me.
Me.
A skinny girl in a big white T-shirt that billows up with wind, her legs bent, her knees drawn up against her chest. A girl whispering into the wind, into the sea:
Me.
Me.
Then a wave rises up and crashes down and the girl loses herself in the din, she disappears from herself, she’s not there. What happened to Me? The fragile being made of words has vanished and in its place is only a vast Not-Me: the sea.
*   *   *
I’m going to get another glass of water.
*   *   *
Someone leads her into the wind, takes her by the hand—the skinny, gawky girl, her white T-shirt down to her thighs—and spreads a red blanket on the sand and sits her down and tells her what to say. Repeat:
Me.
Me.
This happens over and over, every afternoon of every day, this sitting on the sand and rocking back and forth and saying Me and this self disappearing in the roar of the wave that crashes and dissolves into foam that skims quickly over the sand.
*   *   *
My aunt Isabelle, as she later told Me, had come from Berkeley, California, to Mazatlán, Sinaloa, to take possession of her inheritance: a tuna cannery called Consuelo, which means Consolation. Consolation Tuna. The most ill-conceived name in the fishing industry on the face of the planet, as a marketing specialist was to inform us many years later.
1 day, my aunt Isabelle stepped off a plane that shimmered in the sun on the runway of the tiny Mazatlán airport, all dressed in white—white linen slacks, white blouse—with a wide-brimmed straw hat and big black sunglasses, and walked across the runway with her right hand clasped to her head so that her wide-brimmed straw hat wouldn’t blow away.
She went straight from the airport to the tuna cannery. Her inheritance valued at several million dollars.
The cannery took up 2 entire blocks—consisting of 2 gigantic cement structures and 1 cylindrical glass building—and ran from the street all the way down to its private docks: 4 parallel docks where 20 anchored tuna boats sat bobbing in the water.
She hated it. My aunt did. The cannery, I mean. The smell of saltpeter mixed with the rotting stench of dead fish.
Dressed entirely in white linen, wearing giant sunglasses with round lenses, she stepped into the first windowless cement block and stopped at the worktables where, beneath the buzz of a cloud of flies and down the length of 8 tables, women stood mechanically gutting the fish.
She decided to cast her eyes higher, at the cloud of flies, and asked:
Why the hell don’t you use insecticide?
Because, señora, her guide replied, the chemicals in the insecticide would contaminate the tuna.
She dared, then, to look down.
At the tables, the women worked methodically. The first would slice open the fish with a machete, as if pulling down a zipper in its side. Then she’d pass the fish to the next woman, who thrust both pink latex-gloved hands in all the way up to her elbows to yank out all the viscera with 1 swift tug and hurl them over the table, into the pile of red, pink, and violet viscera covering the floor. The third woman hacked off the head with a machete blow and heaved it into the bin beside her.
*   *   *
Sickened, my aunt Isabelle covered her mouth and sped on her white, wooden-heeled sandals across the pink foam-covered floor—a mix of seawater and tuna blood—rushed into a bathroom where 100 flies were flitting around and the smell of dead fish blended with that of fresh shit, and before she could make it to a toilet, she vomited into the sink.
The worst was still awaiting elegant Aunt Isabelle.
A taxi took her through a town full of squat, cement houses and potholed asphalt streets—asphalt that glinted like steel in all that sun—and dropped her in front of the house that my great-grandfather—my aunt’s grandfather—had bequeathed her.
Behind a courtyard of dried-out yellow grass and giant palm trees with huge, dejected, desiccated fronds, the white, 2-story, French-style mansion with pompous battlements running along the top was in ruins. A mansion with black-and-white checkerboard marble floors where the air got cool, but steel girders hung down from the destroyed ceiling and the windows either had no panes or had cracked glass and broken wooden sills. A French mansion built in the 19th century by my great-grandfather, founder of Consolation Tuna.
In the master bedroom with windows overlooking the sea, the 2 mattresses on the big, king-sized bed had rotted and 1 had a hole in the middle of it, a crater that had become the hub of an ants’ nest, red ants that marched single file down each of the 4 legs of the bed and under the gaps beneath the 4 doors, sallying forth down the 4 hallways leading to the 12 bedrooms on the second floor.
So the first night my aunt slept in a hammock she found in the living room, hung between 1 Doric column and another Doric column and close to another large, windowless window that also overlooked the sea.
And when she was half-asleep, as my aunt Isabelle has since told Me, she heard footsteps and then felt someone’s breath on her face.
Terrified, she opened her eyes and there stood a creature with a tangled mass of hair covering half her face. She was a dark, naked thing, and Aunt Isabelle could barely make out her large eyes beneath the matted clump of hair, a wild thing staring at her fixedly.
Who are you? Aunt Isabelle whispered.
And the thing took 2 steps back.
Aunt Isabelle got up out of the hammock quickly and the thing took 2 more steps back.
Aunt Isabelle took 2 steps forward and the thing ran away, more afraid of Aunt Isabelle than Aunt Isabelle was of it.
Aunt Isabelle watched it take off down the stairs like a shot in the dark blue air, running for the basement. She heard it bolt the wooden door, heard the tremendous racket made by things being hurled against the basement walls, a tremendous racket that soon increased, accompanied by horrifying howls—like a dog, like a coyote—coming from the thing, and it lasted, Aunt Isabelle said, 2 or 3 hours, making it impossible to concentrate on anything else. She went to her suitcase and took out a bottle of whiskey, threw herself down on the hammock, and drank half the bottle, taking long swigs, but not even that drowned out the terrible racket and let her fall back to sleep, until finally, close to dawn, it ended, after 1 long, final howl.
*   *   *
When she awoke, the marble floor and white walls reflected the noonday sun and she heard a dry rattling coming from the kitchen.
It was Gorda, leaning over the counter, turning the handle of the coffee mill. Gorda: the fat, dark-skinned house servant, wearing a black fabric belt that bisected her body and made her look like an 8, with huaraches on her chubby-toed feet.
The 2 women greeted each other, Gorda tipped the ground coffee into a pitcher of boiled water, and poured it through a strainer into 1 glass, and then into another, in silence, and although they only knew of each other from third-party references, the 2 women sat down at the table together and immediately began writing in a notebook all the things the house would need.
Provisions and cleaning supplies on 1 list, people they’d have to hire on another. Permanent: a gardener, a butler, and a chauffeur. For 1 week: an ant exterminator. For 1 month: a marble-floor polisher. And for 2 months: 12 construction workers to repair the walls, put glass in the windows, and bring in the furniture, when it arrived in the trailer.
At a certain point, Aunt Isabelle got up from the table, lit a cigarette, and, leaning against the stove, told Gorda about her encounter with the thing the night before.
Ah, the girl, said Gorda, laughing softly.
The girl?
She lives here. Nobody told you?
Who do you suppose would have told me?
Your sister, of course.
Gorda was still chuckling.
She actually forgot to tell you about the girl?
I didn’t speak to my sister before she died, my aunt said. We weren’t close.
Ah, well. There you have it.
And why does the girl live here?
Gorda considered the question before replying.
Charity, I believe.
On the blue-tiled kitchen wall, a machete hung from a nail. My aunt Isabelle snatched it up and headed down the basement stairs, Gorda right behind her. Behind the door, she found a gloomy cellar that reeked. It was littered with broken wood and pieces of furniture and shattered bottles, and after turning a corner she was temporarily blinded by light. In 1 wall, a big, bright, light-filled hole looked onto a turquoise pool of seawater. A pool of seawater contained in a wooden corral, some 50 meters from the hole in the wall, in whose corner stood—water up to her waist, thin as a black line in the turquoise liquid—the thing.
The thing sank down beneath the surface and reemerged with something red and wriggly in her hand, a red fish that slipped from her grasp and slid back into the water. She erupted with laughter.
She seems happy, Aunt Isabelle said.
Oh, yes. She’s always either happy, angry, or spaced out. Those are the 3 options. Should I call her?...

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