If you like original, unusual, interesting books, this has to be on the top of your list. Narrated by Karen Nieto, an autistic savant, this book takes you into the world of someone who makes the most of her “different abilities”. Written by an acclaimed Mexican author, of Jewish background, who often uses part of her heritage in her books, the readers will find that the novel enlightens them with interesting, clear and concise information, not only about autism but also about the tuna industry, especially in terms of its impact on the environment and in terms of its culinary and nutritional value.
Karen's story introduces us to the food chain of tuna and dolphins, and we learn how the larger of all species feeds upon the smaller of another, how dolphins protect tuna as they swim, how they sometimes get caught in traps, how they are brutally treated and how she, of "different abilities", recognizes their needs and lobbies for their more humane treatment as she designs more humane methods of capturing and killing them. It seems odd to be so concerned about humanely treating something you are eventually intending to destroy, murder, eat..., but the gift of this character is that she makes you question things merely with her simplistic reasoning. She made me think of our penal code, the death penalty...solitary confinement, etc., the ways we treat each other. In order to reform someone, is punishing them the answer, is showing them less humane treatment how they learn? If they learn by the example, isn’t that the wrong lesson?
To Karen, who is autistic, humans are too complicated. She reduces problems to their basics, to uncomplicated forms. Things are more black and white. She doesn’t see gray areas. It either is one way, or it isn’t. She does not waste words or make idle conversation. She does not really know how to do that, and she considers it a waste of time and effort.
After inheriting the tuna factory from her sister, Karen’s aunt moves to Mazatlan to take it over and run it in the interest of family. Once there, she discovers Karen, an untamed child, unkempt, completely wild and uncontrollable, with no language or verbal skills and with little or no interest in communicating with others. In fact, she hides from the world and seems to only show herself in order to investigate what piques her curiosity or to feed her hunger, which can be satisfied by things other than food, as is evidenced when she eats sand. She is left to herself by the inhabitants who know full well of her existence. Mostly she runs away and lives without hygiene of any kind and without any structure, as well, until her Aunt Isabelle discovers her and realizes that she is most likely her deceased sister’s offspring. When she sees the appalling conditions in which she lives, and she realizes that she has been abused, as evidenced by the scars on her body, she sets about to try and tame her, educate her and provide a viable live for her. This proves to be a daunting task. However, Isabelle is an unusual person. When she discovers that Karen fails 90 % of the tests she is given and is classified basically as a childlike imbecile, she decides to concentrate on the 10% of the test results that classify her as a genius. What a remarkable idea!!!
This is definitely a book with a progressive slant to it. Environmentalists will love this book, although the darker, more violent side of environmentalism is also exposed. Karen is unusual. Her memory for certain things is exact, her need for privacy and silence often sends her outside herself, away from the world, and she simply “disappears”. She uses a harness and wetsuit to suspend herself upside down from the ceiling when she needs to be calm, to center herself and escape from the over stimulated world of people. Often her behavior is very anti-social and she can do violent things like tossing people into water to remove them when they annoy her too much. She has no filter on her behavior.
Karen’s view of the world is uncomplicated by what she calls metaphors. She would prefer people say exactly what they mean to express themselves. She doesn’t easily comprehend facial expressions and cannot make them without practice. She doesn’t feel the way the majority of people “feel”. Her emotions are missing. She is more clinical than passionate; actually, the only thing she gets excited about is the well being of the tuna. Greenpeace adores her. I loved her explanation of why Descartes is absolutely wrong about his theory that “I think, therefore I am”. She says, rightly and literally so, you must be, before you can think, so that his idea is idiotic!
The important characters were well defined and you could almost see the actor or actress playing their role on the big screen. The writing was interesting as in the use of the numeral 1 instead of the word, (one), or in giving Karen the name of “ME” in the beginning, rather than a real name. Explaining her idiosyncrasies was a large part of the dialogue and it helped to understand what autism is and how an autistic person would interact in the world, often misunderstood and often not recognized as someone with a handicap. Too many people made fun of her shortcomings instead of her strong points. An enormous spotlight was shed on the cruelty of humans towards those who are different and those they deem less important. The mercenary character traits were emphasized, as well, to contrast with the fact that Karen only wanted to do good for the world of the sea creatures and held no interest in monetary gain. She was not judgmental nor was she callous. She admits she cannot lie, and these traits can’t possibly be construed in a negative way, can they?
This author has a light touch and with a judicious sense of humor, makes what could be a really complicated story into one that wears “simple story clothing”. It is about a child who sees the world through the eyes of her autism. Her perspective, while narrow, is often clearer and more concise than that of the more educated among us who create convoluted answers and explanations, often to applaud themselves. This novel makes one think about how we treat each other, as well as how we treat everything else around us, animate and inanimate.
The only things I found lacking in the book were references to the real world. I was left wondering about its credibility, wondering if someone like Karen did or could exist, and would people around her be as cavalier as they were to her abuse at home, at school or in any setting. Were it not for her aunt, what kind of a life would she have led? I would have liked to know more about the author's reasons for writing the novel and how she conducted her research. The topic is timely and important on many levels.