"Half World is Boschean delight a la Goto: a magical, madcap, and deliciously creepy tale of tribulations, terror and triumph; a girl-power adventure in screaming jelly-toned colours"
First of all, I am in love with Gillian Tamaki's incredible cover for this book. I can't even display the whole thing--it wraps around the back and also around the inside flaps--but it's so artful and rich. Tamaki's work has always seemed to me to have an echo of those elegant old japanese wood-blocks, but done with a modern aesthetic and energy. Her cover captures the psychology of the book, with its mirroring imagery and its folkloric elements (the crow and rat helpers who help the heroine navigate the dark dangers of her quest, the shabby girl who is transformed in a magical moment). Tamaki has also illustrated the interior of Half World with a series of eerie black-and-white drawings which suit the story beautifully.
It is fitting that the cover art for Half World packs such a punch, since Goto's text is so vividly visual and even sensual in a grotesque, surrealist kind of way. Early on there are references to the work of Frida Khalo, Escher, and Hieronymous Bosch, in particular the painting depicting the bizarre and disturbing Hell in the tryptich The Garden of Earthly Delights. A modern rendition of Bosch's Hell, Half World, is the landscape for the bulk of the story's action.
Melanie Tamaki, the story's heroine, lives in the Realm of Flesh (our earth) but does not know that she was actually conceived in Half World, a stepping stone between the Realm of Flesh and the Realm of Spirit. Half World is where we go after death, to work through our earthly traumas and arrive in the Realm of Spirit peaceful and purified. However, the cosmos is out of order and each of the realms is degenerating; Half World in particular has become a nightmare, with people endlessly reliving their worst moments, those strong enough to extend their cycle becoming psychologically twisted and losing their humanity. Cruelty and depravity abound, particularly in the form of a malevolent and powerful being called Mr. Glueskin. When Mr. Glueskin summons Melanie's mother back to Half World after 14 years on earth, Melanie follows in a terrifying attempt to rescue her. Accompanied by animal helpers (crows and a jade rat amulet which can come to life) Melanie finds that she has a power herself; after all, she is alive in a way that the suffering denizens of Half World are not, and as a living being, is capable of making choices that can change the future. As befits a dark fairy tale quest, Melanie's final choice of compassion has healing magic powerful enough to restore balance to the three broken realms.
Goto's writing is exciting, inventive, full of peril, and, to quote Hopkinson again, "deliciously creepy". The fantastical elements are grounded by serious themes of self-sacrifice and courage in the face of evil. This is a book that should appeal to fans of Neil Gaiman or Charles de Lint, both of whom have given Goto rave reviews. I've also seen it compared to the film Pan's Labyrinth. And, for such a "deliciously creepy" book, the ending is wonderfully redemptive. Perfect for teens who like their spines chilled just a little.