Half World: A Novel by Scott O'Connor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Inspired by real CIA operations, the riveting novel of a fraying CIA analyst who conducts secret mind-control experiments and the young agent who, years later, uncovers the appalling legacy of the program and the people destroyed by it.
From its official sanction in 1953 to its shutdown in 1973, the CIA clandestinely conducted methods of mind control on unwitting American and Canadian citizens. This covert and illegal operation, Project MKUltra, eventually made national headlines upon the declassification of thousands of documents in 2001.
Intrigued by the people empowered to enact such abuses and the legacy of such an operation, Scott O’Connor weaves the nuanced and compelling story of Henry March, a CIA agent forced to spearhead a series of insidious mind-control experiments in San Francisco. With each passing day, Henry’s existence becomes a nightmare, his identity withering as he works over the hapless men lured into his facility. Struggling between his duty to his country and his responsibility to his wife and children, Henry finally reaches a breaking point, leaving both his project and mind fractured. Amid the wreckage, he disappears, becoming the deepest ULTRA mystery.
Two decades later, Dickie Ashby, a young CIA agent, is sent to Los Angeles to infiltrate a group of bank-robbing radicals who claim to have been abused in a government brainwashing operation years earlier. The members of the group know they need to find Henry March and that the only bridge to Henry is his daughter, Hannah, who lives in the city. Dickie suddenly finds himself dragged into the stunning legacy of the experiments, torn between doing his job, helping the victims of Henry’s program, and protecting Hannah.
Called “one to watch” (Los Angeles Times) and hailed for his ability “to make something beautiful of unspeakable matters” (The New York Times), O’Connor will stir your emotions with Half World, a mesmerizing novel about reality and the basic incorruptible value of human relationships.
I don't even know what to say about this story. It is disturbing yet not so surprising. As a college student I learned about the use of LSD on soldiers in the 1950's and 60's. The soldiers later had flashbacks and went a little crazy. This is much worse.
The book is divided into sections. The worst of the scenes are edited but implied. Based on true events, the story begins with Henry March, a mild mannered man who had an "episode" in D.C. where he had a slight psychotic break at a holiday party. It is unclear if Henry was ever administered LSD at an earlier time. He is transferred to San Francisco where, with the help of local prostitutes and two other CIA operatives, men are drugged in an apartment and the ensuing events are consequently recorded via camera, audio recording device, and Henry March's ledger. The orders from the government are somewhat ambiguous but the meanings are clear. The result is that some men are tortured and drugged into a new identity, committing acts they would not normally act upon. Additionally, men are drugged and interrogated under torture. This escalates to a point that Henry March somehow disappears as does his ledger.
Part II is 25 years later. Hannah, Henry's daughter, is living in Los Angeles, believing that her autistic brother is safe at home with her mother. She's estranged from her mother and living a life on the fringe. Dickie enters Hannah's life and offers to help Hannah find her father. The mystery of what occurred 25 years earlier is revealed to the reader. The fate of Henry et. al. along with the mysterious ledger is slowly brought to light.
The different sections of the book are loosely connected. There is Henry, his children, then his grown children, then Dickie who wants to not have to fight in Vietnam. I was unclear if Dickie was also used as a subject for brainwashing. It seemed that his past was somewhat muddled so it was implied that he was. The story of Hannah, her mother and her brother are somewhat extraneous but leads a circuitous path to the fate of Henry March and the others who were in both the interrogation/torture room and the spy room.
I couldn't put it down until I'd read the book in its entirety.