The better half
After years of toil, an author emerges with a globe-trotting debut novel.
Cristina Henríquez took two years to write her first novel, a historical epic that canvassed three generations connected by the Panama Canal. And when her editor gently suggested that the character who emerged in the last third of the book really should have been the focus, it was back to the beginning.
“At first I was like, ‘Oh great, there goes 300 pages of work,’” Henríquez says, laughing. “So it was initially kind of devastating. But the more I thought about it, the more it was probably true.”
So Henríquez handed the book to Miraflores Reid, the young, introspective and hesitant narrator of her debut novel The World in Half (Riverhead, $25.95). At the outset, Mira’s mother, Catarina, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and Mira struggles to continue her geology studies at University of Chicago while caring for her mother in Evanston. Mira’s father, a Panamanian man with whom Catarina had an affair when her husband was stationed by the canal—the marriage ended shortly thereafter—had been a mystery all of her life. But as she helps her mother organize her life, Mira stumbles upon letters from her father, Gatún Gallardo, that speak achingly of his love for Catarina and his desire to see his daughter. Though she’d known about her father, she’d always figured he was glad to have the continent between them. After securing in-home care for her mother, Mira lies to her mom about a school trip and books a three-week journey to Panama in search of her father. Panama has particular resonance for Henríquez, whose own father is from the country.
Once there, Mira immediately realizes the folly of her decision. She can only skim the surface of a country she doesn’t know, and you can’t search out a missing person if you’re missing, too. In her hotel, she meets Danilo, a handsome flower vendor about her age, who pledges to help find her father. As the search progresses, regresses and circles in on itself, Danilo and Mira’s relationship does the same, never quite getting beyond an awkward platonic intimacy. It’s no easy task, sketching out a friendship between a young man and woman that grows in exciting ways, but never dips into the romantic.
“I found it so difficult that I actually didn’t write a platonic relationship,” says Henríquez, 31. “I could find you a part here on my computer where something does end up happening. But I didn’t want it to be predictable, so I started pulling back.”
As the title suggests, much of The World in Half concerns breaching the undefinable middle ground. Gatún proves elusive to Mira for much of the book, as does her true reason for stealing away to Central America. Panama provides the perfect backdrop, as a country torn in half by the canal, a country largely defined by America’s intrusion and a country struggling to kick-start its tourism industry but stuck in first gear.
“It’s a very half-American, half-Latin country,” says Henríquez. “I’ve always thought of that as relating to Mira, half of herself belonging to that part of the world.”
In poetic passages plumbing the depths of Mira’s mixed emotions, Mira turns to geology to express her otherwise unvoiced feelings. Speaking of volcanoes, she says, “It’s the pain of the earth bubbling up through the surface and ripping it apart. It’s the earth’s ineluctable heartbreak.”
“In some ways Mira is a lot like me,” Henríquez says. “We’re both Goody Two-shoes, we play by the rules, we’re afraid of doing a lot of things. I knew I had created a character similar to me, so I wanted to give her something totally antithetical to me, which was knowing a lot about science. I couldn’t believe how metaphorically rich a discipline it turned out to be.”
And all she had to do was unearth Mira from that first, precambrian draft.
Henríquez reads as part of Local Author Night at the Book Cellar on Wednesday 15.