Book Review: 'The World in Half,' by Cristina Henriquez

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, April 26, 2009


By Cristina Henríquez

Riverhead. 305 pp. $25.95

Divided identity, the central theme of Cristina Henríquez's engaging if slight first novel, is much on people's minds these days. Herself a young Chicagoan with deep roots in Panama, she has written a novel about a young Chicagoan who makes a bold, sudden trip to Panama to explore her deep roots there. Precisely how much further autobiography goes in "The World in Half" is unclear and, for that matter, unimportant, but the novel is sure to strike a familiar and affecting note with the many other residents of this country who are trying to reconcile divided identities as well as divided loyalties.

Miraflores Catherine Reid, the 20-year-old narrator and protagonist, lives in Chicago with her mother, Catharine, and attends college at what appears to be Northwestern, Henríquez's alma mater. She has never met her father, Gatún Gallardo, a Panamanian with whom her mother had a brief but ardent affair while living in Panama City in the mid-1980s. She knows almost nothing about him and assumes that he was "a man who, upon learning [her mother] was pregnant, decided he didn't have much interest in raising a child, so he let her, and me, go."

Then, going through her mother's things one day, she discovers a small cache of letters from Gatún in which he makes clear that he wants to "raise our child together" and that he loves her deeply. Almost instantly, Mira decides that she has to go to Panama to see if she can find him, to meet the other half of that human pair that brought her into being. She tells her ailing mother that she has been "invited on a Geophysical Sciences Department trip to the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington," hires a woman named Lucy Carter to care for her, buys a ticket on-line, and leaves. "Ordinarily," she says, "I am not a brave person," but she makes this trip alone and unprepared.

As by now you probably have figured out, suspension of disbelief is utterly necessary to a sympathetic reading of "The World in Half." That a 20-year-old college student can pull the wool so thoroughly over her mother's eyes, and those of her mother's caretaker as well, is possible but, at best, improbable. That she leaves no contact information beyond her cell-phone number is, again, possible but implausible. Ditto for the virtual silence with which Catharine and Lucy acquiesce in her impromptu plans: no probing questions, no serious objections, just, "Have fun."

Implausibility continues to be the rule when she gets to Panama City. She had reserved a room at the Hotel Centro, "the cheapest lodging listed in the guidebook that also advertises air-conditioning." It proves to be clean but modest, complete with a friendly doorman named Hernán and a youth about her own age named Danilo, Hernán's nephew. Beyond selling flowers in the street he has no visible means of support, but he knows his way around the city, and once he learns the true purpose of her visit, he offers to be her guide. That she places herself so willingly and completely in his hands is, well, possible but improbable.

Still, they make an appealing pair, this "humble, determined, serious, resourceful, reserved, and hardworking" young woman and this free-spirited young man who "stubbornly . . . demands life from himself and from everyone around him." Together they go to the library, to the Panama Canal (her father's last known place of employment) and to the old center city, Vieja Panama. Phone calls to numbers listed under her father's surname produce one mildly enigmatic response but mostly dead ends. Mira suffers "the panic of not knowing where to go next" and the frustration of uncertainty.

She presses on, though, and as Hernán and Danilo grow fonder of her, they make her a (quite unlikely) offer: to move in with them in the tiny but orderly apartment they share. She accepts, though she feels somewhat uneasy about imposing on them, and as a result finds herself experiencing Panama less as a tourist and more as a resident. Like many another Yanqui visitor to the immense cities of Latin America, she is at once appalled and enchanted, and Henríquez describes what she sees and feels with real feeling of her own:

"It's the way all of Panama seems: a place where the sidewalks are cracked and broken, where people live in buildings that looked as structurally sound as if they were built with toothpicks, where the storefronts are soiled from polluted air, where abandoned cars sit on the side of the road and sometimes in the middle of it, where armed guards perform random street checks and stand menacingly in front of even the drugstore, where mangy dogs roam free, and where bits of garbage are caught in every patch of overgrown grass throughout the city, and yet, for all the grit, there's a sublime sort of beauty, too, the way the whole of the city shines in the gracious, broad rays of the sun, the smile -- welcoming and sincere and full of life -- on people's faces as they walk down the streets, the brilliant flowers blooming in even the most unsuspecting nooks and crannies, the ebb and flow of the bay against the land, the black iron sand swirled into the shore, the songs of birds -- like birds I've never heard before -- coursing through the morning hours of every single day. It's the kind of discord that exists everywhere, or at least in any place that's large enough to be more than one thing. But it's different here. The beauty and the disarray are everything. They are the edges of Panama, the borders that define it, and there is nothing else in between."

I quote that passage at length because I like it a great deal and because everything it says is true. Latin America is simultaneously desperate and hypnotic, and Henríquez gets this aspect of it exactly right, not only in this passage but elsewhere in the novel as Mira gradually comes to love this place that is, in part, her own. For all its implausibility, "The World in Half" is engaging and touching.

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