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.