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Half Life Explores a Woman Drifting Between Two Cultures

June 12, 2010

Half Life by Roopa Farooki
published by St. Martin’s Press, April 27, 2010

Several years ago, Aruna abandoned her lover in Singapore, without saying goodbye, and emigrated to London. She was fleeing a revelation that had irrevocably changed her life. She was also struggling with a psychiatric illness. The medications used to treat it left her feeling at half life; the world around her and her own emotions seemed less vivid. So she abandoned her treatment when she left Singapore, self medicating with alcohol, cigarettes and other drugs.

Now she lives in London, using her doctorate to secure teaching positions. She’s been married for almost a year to Patrick Jones, a British doctor she married on impulse. They have a passionate sexual relationship, but Aruna doesn’t let Patrick know who she really is, and his frustration fuels continual fighting.

Aruna is unable to free herself from her past in Singapore, and she feels like a piece of driftwood, floating between two cultures. Desperately unhappy, she impulsively leaves Patrick and boards a plane for Singapore. Across the ocean, her former lover, Ejaz, is waiting for her, and she has a chance to finally finish their story.

In a parallel narrative, Hassan, a Muslim Bengalese poet living in Singapore, lies in a hospital bed. He is slowly dying, but his son has refused to allow a Do Not Resuscitate order so he can end his long life naturally. He yearns for his estranged son for forgive his past sins and set him free, and he is struggling to make peace with the past.

Each of these parallel stories shifts back and forth in time. We see Aruna, Ejaz, and Hassan in the present, then we delve into their memories, uncovering long-held secrets and revelations that help us understand their present predicaments.

The writing in this novel is absolutely beautiful. All the threads of the story mingle smoothly, and it’s rich with metaphors and literary and poetic allusions. The novel deals with disturbing themes, including death, suicide, mental illness, addiction and incest. It also explores the turmoil in India in the wake of English colonialism and the bloody civil war in Pakistan. The characters were vibrantly drawn. Though I found Aruna easy to empathize with, I found her difficult to like. I actually found Hassan’s story more compelling. Nevertheless, they are both memorable characters, and their stories fit smoothly together in the end, like pieces of a puzzle.

Because of the author’s gorgeous writing and vibrant storytelling ability, I will find this book hard to forget. And the forays into Asian history and culture added another dimension, making it much more interesting. I recommend it to people who enjoy multicultural fiction and knotty family stories.

A memorable passage, to give you a sample of the writing — the author is describing Ejaz’s mother, who suffered from cancer:

And besides, his mother’s well-being plummeted shortly afterwards; not her physical health, as she had been given good news, it seemed she was in remission, but her mental state. Having prepared so long for death, it was as though she seemed to have no idea how to live; she carried on like a walking ghost, a survivor of a nuclear accident who carried the promise of dying within her. She had once had her own vocabulary, as precise as poetry, all to do with the concerns of wifehood, motherhood, the beauty of domesticity: car pool, pooris, dry cleaning, lemon drizzle cake … But now she left these words scattered behind her for someone else to pick up and make use of.

Read Another Review: Booking Mama

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 12, 2010 5:18 pm

    What I love about you, and your blog, is how versatile the books you read are. You go from YA to Women’s Literature to these books, full of culture and history, and it’s just so great. This book sounds really good.

    • June 12, 2010 7:18 pm

      Thanks, Robby — you made my day. 😀 I am definitely all over the place — errr — I mean eclectic.

  2. June 12, 2010 6:47 pm

    Ooh, sounds like a beautiful book!

  3. June 14, 2010 2:58 pm

    I have to add this to my list – 4 1/2 stars are must reads for me!

    I will be back tonight when I have time to read… you have several new posts from my last visit (I’m so far behind these days…).

    Have a great week!

  4. June 16, 2010 11:45 pm

    This book sounds amazing! Thanks for suggesting it! I am off to add it.

  5. June 17, 2010 2:06 pm

    This sounds really good. Thanks for the recommendation!

    –Anna

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