Half Life by Roopa Farooki

One London morning, Dr. Aruna Ahmed Jones walks away from her life, leaving behind her half-eaten breakfast, loving husband, and promising career. The book she’s currently reading has the line “It’s time to stop fighting, and go home”; somehow, that sentence provides the direction she needs. For Aruna has hitherto managed to distance herself from anything that might matter, abandoning her family and friends in order to grab at a life she believed would be easy. But her new existence has proven unsatisfactory; Aruna, unconvinced she’s deserving of happiness or love, is now addicted to getting high (on drink, cannabis, cigarettes and sex). An abortive suicide attempt later, Aruna is headed to Singapore to meet her oldest friend and former lover, Jazz.

Half Life is narrated in three repeating voices — that of Aruna, Jazz, and Jazz’s father Hassan, whose role in Aruna’s life progressively becomes clearer. Hassan, who was forced to leave his beloved Bangladesh for Malaysia, has fathered a daughter he has never seen, and his memories might be key to resolving their situation. Hassan now lies dying in Kuala Lampur General Hospital, and Jazz, although estranged from his father, decides to visit him for Aruna’s sake.

Aruna is passionately and deeply written, and successfully acquits herself of the charge of self-centeredness often leveled at such protagonists — her demons aren’t standard victim-literature creations but tragedies with a core of real pain. As for Hassan, his story offers an apposite (and poignant) counterpoint to the non-romance of Jazz and Aruna. The three narratives all deal with irreconcilable love affairs, with exile and the meaning of home, and the characters all explore feelings of loneliness, regret, and loss, but there’s a vast difference in the power of each of the stories. A book showcasing alternating viewpoints must needs develop distinct voices for each, and Half Life doesn’t quite pull it off. Although Jazz, Aruna, and Hassan are each granted the same time on centre stage, Jazz’s tale possesses but the titular half life. He’s written like a female character, and often seems indistinguishable from Aruna in thought and tone. Towards the close, Jazz is reduced to little more than Aruna’s (and to a lesser extent, Hassan’s) enabler, allowing them closure so they can move on.

I also felt that while Farooki adeptly chronicled the minutiae of the domestic lives of her characters — petty tiffs between husband and wife that accrete into significance, a nursing mother’s chagrin over the childless Aruna’s competence with babies — she faltered when describing the inner lives of her characters, indulging in over-dramatic prose a shade too often for my comfort. “She would dash herself on him, again and again, like waves foaming against a cliff; she would be both the swimmer and the sea, and in her own marine depths she would try and drown the person she had been, and the reason she had left.” I liked Half Life, I did, but believe it’d have been a much bigger hit with me if only Farooki had restrained herself a tad.

***

Reviewed for the Asian Review of Books. I’ve read nothing but raves for this one on the blogosphere, but as you see, my own experience wasn’t quite as rosy.

11 responses to “Half Life by Roopa Farooki

  1. Recently discovered your blog and I’m loving it! I was thinking of borrowing half-life from the library (again, since I never got round to reading it the first time I borrowed it), but I might pass on it after reading the review!

    Have you ever covered Thrity Umrigar–I recently finished a couple of her books and I’d love to read what you have to say about her!! Looking forward to reading more on your blog….

    Gagan

  2. Ok, the quote at the end killed it for me – “in her own marine depths”…? Jeez.

  3. This book was recently recommended to me so I’m interested to hear that you liked it, even if you didn’t love it. It sounds like an interesting story.

  4. @ GB: Thank you! Your blog is lovely; I’m hopelessly inept at crafts so I’m very impressed by your skills.
    I’ve read only one of Umrigar’s works–The Space Between Us, which, apart from a few minor quibbles, I liked very much. My review is here: http://www.asianreviewofbooks.com/arb/article.php?article=663

    @ Shripriya: Yes, the “marine depths” was…unfortunate. I wish this book had been better edited.

    @ Amy: It’s a like, but with reservations. If you are intrigued by the setting, I should warn you that Malaysia figures very little–it’s mostly London and Singapore.

  5. Niranjana, I read and loved “the space between us”, and based on the book I picked up “if today be sweet”. Which was an utter disappointment–i read through to the very end (because I can’t seem to put a book down, no matter how much it sucks) ….I would have loved to read your review on it, though!
    🙂

  6. Hi Niranjana,

    I haven’t read Half Life but my last two forays into Farooki (Bitter Sweets and The Corner Shop) left me somewhat disappointed. She writes beautifully, her characters are compelling if somewhat neurotic, the situations and themes she explores interest me BUT….the dramatic devices she uses are so tacky…..the stories twist to a resolution in ways which remind me of the half baked soaps my mother watches on Indian television – they just don’t ring true…..which is really a pity because there is much to the writing itself.

    Manjul

  7. ps: I don’t recall the two I read being over-written in the way that you describe this one to be

  8. @ Manjul: I haven’t read Corner Shop, but Bitter Sweets was very differently written from Half life. I felt BS had a somewhat flip tone unsuited to the events of the novel. Half Life is the exact opposite–if anything, too earnest. I did actually wonder if she deliberately plays with tone, not altogether successfully, in her writing.
    It’s been ages since I watched a half-baked Indian soap, but I know what you mean. Half Life doesn’t do the dramatic twist = happy ending thing, but the plot does turn on coincidence.

  9. Well, of the two Corner Shop is definitely the better book though again there is a certain tawdriness to the plotline.

    Manjul

  10. What a great blog you have! Stumbled across it by accident but will be coming back for more. I have to say that I really loved HALF LIFE, it was poignant, compelling and I couldn’t put it down once I started it. Have you read Farooki’s latest, THE WAY THINGS LOOK TO ME? It was longlisted for the Orange Prize this year, and I noticed that it has just been longlisted for the Impac Dublin Literary Prize.

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