By Cristina Henriquez
Tales about lost fathers in literature often end in extremes, with the fathers turning out to be dramatic cads or pining, altruistic souls who believed their children were better off without them. There seems to be little space in fiction for in-between fathers, who lived generally assuming lives but also had their small moments of drama and musing about their lost offspring.
Cristina Henriquez, in her quietly hypnotic novel, "The World in Half," offers a quest for a father that involves two countries and mindsets. The protagonist, Miraflores Catherine Reid, is an undergraduate in geology at the University of Chicago. Her eccentric, single mother has become ill with Alzheimer's at the shockingly early age of 45. As the disease progresses Miraflores worries both about her mother's health and the loss of her memory. Since Miraflores and her mother have always been the only two members of their family, her mother's unpredictable mind prompts her daughter to grasp quickly for anchors from their past.
In rummaging through her mother's files, Miraflores discovers letters from her father, a Panamanian with whom her mother had an affair while married to another man, a Marine stationed in Panama. As a child and young adult, Miraflores had believed that her father abandoned her mother after she became pregnant. The stowed-away letters, however, indicate that Miraflores' father had been eager to help raise his daughter, in Panama or America.
Though Miraflores is a self-proclaimed, unadventurous person ("I pack up my things in the library and take them with me when I need to use the bathroom," she says), her studies have led her in a decidedly different direction. The book contains graceful meditations on geography and geology. Similarly, in Henriquez's descriptions of Panama and Chicago, the quotidian suddenly shimmers; even tired, tourist landscapes offers up delight. Henriquez also exhibited this considerable skill in her first book, a collection of stories called "Come Together, Fall Apart."
Upon arriving in Panama, Miraflores finds that she cannot think of her father's country without also summoning up her mother's and her own. The sight of water in Panama pulls Miraflores back to a Chicago memory. During a heat wave, a young Miraflores and her cash-strapped mother once tried to escape soaring temperatures by first wandering around the frozen-foods section of Jewel until they were asked to leave by the manager. Next, they fled to the Indiana Dunes, where Miraflores had never been before. As the two lay luxuriating on the beach, her mother pointedly remarked that though there were a million places in the world, "You only need one that makes you happy."
In Spanish, Miraflores' name, often shortened to Mira, means Look at the flowers. In the scenes set in Panama, Henriquez captures the rhythms of Central America convincingly: everyone appears to work hard for little pay, but nobody feels quite the urgency and rush that Miraflores does, at least when she first arrives from Chicago. She soon becomes friends with Danilo, a flower vendor. Though Miraflores admits she's generally cautious about intimate relationships, Danilo entrances her. In a sly move, Henriquez shows us her protagonist finally living up to her name, by looking at her new friend's flowers, and visiting the canal, which has a lock named Miraflores.
It seems no coincidence that Gatun, Miraflores' father, was also named for the canal's locks or manmade lakes. When Miraflores and Danilo go to the canal, Henriquez's prose dazzles. As the two tour with the help of a relative's friend, Henriquez blends in history about the historic pathway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. She describes the attempts of the French to dig it in the late1800s, before thousands succumbed to malaria and yellow fever. When the Americans attempted it, as well, in the early 1900s under President Theodore Roosevelt, more than 20,000 died as a result of cholera.
Just as the workers toiled to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, "The World in Half" tries to reconcile two countries and cultures, as well as parents. The overt metaphors work, primarily because of Miraflores' subject area of study. In fact, she reflects that her own interest in geography stems from learning about continental drift in school. Her new companion, Danilo, surprises her by insisting that Central America is a continent, as well. Miraflores objects, of course, but considering the location and cultural mindset, it doesn't seem like such a bizarre supposition.
At times, the pace of the novel lags a bit, especially in a few of the less significant scenes in Panama, but it could also be argued that the narrative merely reflects the daily rhythms of its surroundings. In Chicago, Miraflores' schedule is filled with activity and obligations. In Panama, her life is less mapped-out, and she's forced to meditate, and meander.
The canal, however, pulls Miraflores back to her central quest. While touring it with Danilo, Miraflores learns that her father has not worked at the canal since the 1980s, and that once he may have caused a serious, near-accident at his work. She eventually finds out the truth, of course, but it's obtained by a different route than she had first supposed. Letters recovered in Panama also reveal some of the information, and Henriquez is skilled at mixing the dramatic and mundane in her characters' missives. This is the subtle power of Henriquez's prose.
In one letter written to Miraflores' mother, her father poignantly remarks, "The streets in the city flooded today....Maybe you're sitting on the other side of the ocean, writing letters to me, too, that you'll never send."
Carolyn Alessio is the recipient of a NEA fellowship in creative writing, and author of a bilingual anthology of Guatemalan children's writing, "The Voices of Hope/Las Voces de la Esperanza." She teaches English at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Pilsen.