Book: Hiromi Goto. Half World. New York: Penguin Group, 2009/2010
Genre: Young Adult Fiction, Fantasy, Supernatural, Light Horror
Audience: Grades 7 to 12 (and up)
Read-Aloud: Story Time!
Summary: In Goto’s story, the world is divided into three different realms: The Realm of the Flesh, the Realm of the Spirit, and Half World. People live in the Realm of Flesh and when they die they go to Half World where they undergo a sort of spiritual purging and afterwards the ascend to the Realm of the Spirit, where upon their souls eventually become reborn back into the Realm of the Flesh in a large cycle. The problem is that something has disrupted the cycle, and now the realms have been severed from each other and everybody’s souls have become trapped; with many of the residents of Half World going mad from the unending purging that they must endure. Melanie Tamaki is a 14 year old girl who was born to two parents from Half Word who tried to escape to the Realm of Flesh to have their child away from the evil machinations of the novel’s main antagonist: Mr. Glueskin. Her mom escaped after making a deal with Mr. Glueskin to return 14 years later and he agrees but takes her father hostage. Her mother bites of her father’s pinky finger in order to pay the gatekeeper’s toll and is released. 14 years pass and Mr. Glueskin takes her mother back so Melanie has to go save her and re-connect the severed realms as foretold by a magic book with the help of a jade rat and magic 8-ball. Eventually she succeeds in re-connecting the realms after many harrowing adventures in the nightmarish Half World, thus helping her parents to finally ascend into the Realm of Spirit and restore balance to the world.
Themes: One of the largest themes in this novel is that of struggle and sacrifice. Most all of the novel is comprised of Melanie struggling against seemingly impossible and improbable odds for a girl of her age and stature, but she is aided many times by different people and objects in order to help her defeat the obstacles in her way. The part of sacrifice comes from these people and objects that serve to assist Melanie on her journey as they bite off their pinkies, die and get reborn in Half World’s spiritual purging, expend their life force, or get injured protecting and helping Melanie along her way. By experiencing and witnessing these moments of struggle, Melanie grows as a person and learns more about herself and the ways of the world.
Another major theme that happens as a consequence of the trials would be that of self realization and growth. At first, Melanie feels inadequate and thinks that she isn’t worth much as a person compared to the more physically fit and smart girls in her school. As the book carries on however, she learns from her experiences and discovers that she is a strong person in her own was and can accomplish that which she sets her mind to. She realizes that she doesn’t need to be extremely strong nor extremely smart to overcome obstacles and can defeat them with persistence and a strong willpower to do so.
Connections: I feel like this book would be a great book to teach in terms of world-building, detail, issues with struggle and sacrifice, and even mythology. The book would be a great example to use in creative writing classes due to Goto’s great use of language and detail and her just as amazing ability to build beautiful fantasy worlds. Another item in the novel that would be good to explore would be to discuss struggle and sacrifice with students and how they can lead to personal growth and development as a person, whereupon the students can share or write their own stories/essays about moments of struggle/sacrifice that they have experienced and how they were affected by them. A good amount of Japanese mythology is also present in bits and pieces throughout the book and it would be a fun exercise to have students poke around the internet looking for origins and explanations as to why Goto would use certain mythological elements in her novel, as well as being a good opportunity to teach students how to use the internet effectively when looking for appropriate scholarly resources.
Reactions: I had mixed feeling about this novel to be sure, even though I would still recommend it as a reading item in classrooms or for fun. I felt that the story was great; the world was amazingly built and detailed, the characters were colorful and had personality in spades, the fantastic element was extremely apparent, the mythological references were interesting and thoughtful, the plot even more so, and the word choices Goto uses in the novel were superb. I especially loved Half World itself because I felt that the horrific and supernatural elements found there along with the semi-crazy and deformed residents served to make this novel as fantastic as it is. My problem with the novel is the protagonist, Melanie. I don’t know exactly what it is, but to me she feels like a hollow and uninteresting character. Everything around her in the story is amazing and magical, but she’s just a bland in comparison to the wonders and sights of Half World. I discovered that I had a strong distaste for the way that she went about problems as well, frequently giving up only to be pushed on by a trinket or a person over and over again in an almost predictable formula. I understand that her receiving help every now and then helps to further the story and plot, but the constant pattern began to annoy me along with her consistent whining. I feel like she didn’t really learn so much in the way of self reliance and being able to accomplish tasks for herself despite her shortcomings, but rather, she only learned to rely on others to help her. Overall though, I really enjoyed the book and look forward to her new novel that’s going to come out based after the events of Half World called Darkest Light, which I think will be even better based on the description so far.
Reception: One reader’s reaction on Goodreads.com mirrored my opinion of the main character pretty well: “I wasn’t impressed by the end either. For a novel that has the realms at stake, I was expecting something more dramatic and the build up was already a let down. In the end, I think Melanie just got lucky- she was never really courageous, had too much help (she never really came up with her own ideas to solve a situation) and there was nothing about her that I thought I could label her as a ‘heroine’.”
Also from the same website, I appreciated this reader’s discussion about Half World’s majestic qualities and the cool illustrations every now and then: “What can I say? I was totally sucked into this fantasy world Hiromi Goto had created, yet I was terrified of Half World because it is both a mysterious and a frightening world. Aside from those grotesque creatures, it is a world bereft of colour. Everything about Half World is gray and gloomy. The characterizations are great too, especially Mr. Glueskin.
And oh, I so loved Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations (she’s also the illustrator for Skim)! Not only they are beautiful but they also helped me to be able to visualize Hiromi Goto’s characters and her world building so much better. I wish this story could be made into an animation because I know I would want to watch it.”