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HALF LIFE by Roopa Farooki. St. Martin’s Press: New York. May 2010. $19.99. 272 pages. St.Martins.com.roopafarooki.com.
“It’s time to stop fighting and go home.”
Those are the words that spur a young woman to action, albeit not the kind of action a newlywed wife would take on any given day. Aruna Ahmed Jones, Ph.D., unceremoniously walks out of her home with little other than the clothes on her back, her purse, and her passport. She leaves behind a loving British husband, a physician, whom she believes won’t notice her absence. Aruna’s split-second decision is less about leaving home than it is about returning to Singapore, where her life began, ended, and must, for her sake, begin again.
Half Life, Roopa Farooki’s third novel, takes her a step forward as an author and showcases her talents not only as a storyteller but also as an artist at portraying the human spirit. The novel is concise, tightly written, and sparsely populated. It concentrates on Aruna; her former perfect and accommodating novelist lover Jazz; and Hassan, a conflicted poet in the final chapter of his life. Preset on this trio of characters and their extraordinary roles in each other’s lives, Farooki is able to more intimately examine what propels them to act as they have and survive as they do.
In an interview conducted via Facebok and email, Farooki explained why she settled on so few characters. “It felt like a natural progression,” she says. “InBitter Sweets I used a wide cast of characters, and in Corner Shop (India Currents April, 2009) I focused most of the story around (four) key characters. With Half Life, I wanted to achieve even greater emotional intensity, and so it felt right to concentrate fully on Aruna, Hassan, and Jazz, and tell the story with their voices, and from their viewpoints, so that the reader is drawn fully into their worlds.”
Along with paring down the number of characters to give them more depth, the novel is set in a condensed chronology. As the characters are brought together in a short period of time, the rising action accelerates, and the conflicts offer more punch than most character-driven novels tend to. Farooki is very deliberate in how she wanted Half Life to evolve:
“I wanted Half Life to be a literary novel that would read like a thriller—to be a page turning, switchback ride,” Farooki writes. “Putting all the action within three days helped me achieve that, creating a dramatic forward momentum that is put into place the moment Aruna walks out of her apartment. The precision of the structure forced a precision in the writing.”
Farooki branches out in her setting of place as well by transporting Aruna from London to her hometown of Singapore and then to Kuala Lumpur. While both Southeast Asian locations may be unfamiliar and interesting to some, for others, they are places to belong.
They serve as stimulating settings, places that haven’t been over-visited in contemporary fiction and that provide a stark contrast to modern London.
“I have always loved Singapore—I have family there, and have visited regularly ever since I was a backpacking teenager,” says Farooki. “Although a busy, multicultural city like London, there is a great sense of energy and sun-lit optimism there, which I felt reflected Jazz’s personality; and as a setting, it was the perfect foil for Aruna’s damp, East London apartment, and Hassan’s sterile hospital room in Kuala Lumpur.”
Farooki’s previous novels deal with complex relationships; Half Life is no different. In the book, we meet a troubled young professor, a confused but vibrant young author, and a dying war poet. Although Farooki once imagined different books about each of the characters, she realized that the abandonment that each would have experienced individually was precisely what connected them together in one story. “These characters were always going to be defined by their turbulent relationships,” Farooki offers as clarification.
That said, it is clear that Half Life is as much about seeking peace as it is about making amends. Aruna takes fate into her own hands when she reads “It’s time to stop fighting, and go home.” From that point on, the quest cannot not be stopped, and other pursuits join along the way. “And the phrase about ‘going home’ which Aruna seizes on,” Farooki adds, “is really her own search for peace and emotional stability. All the characters are seeking their own peace of mind, through making peace with and forgiving those they have both loved and wronged.”
When asked what she would like her readers to take away with them when they finish Half Life, Farooki simply requests that they are “satisfied that they have experienced a good story, well-told; a story that they have enjoyed enough to want to share it with others.” Recommendations on the book’s behalf have started to pour in. Entertainment WeeklyMagazine rated Half Life #2 in the list “18 Books We Can’t Wait to Read This Summer.” I unhesitatingly concur: This book should be on everyone’s summer reading list. It will take you around the world and into the lives of characters so interesting that you’ll want to talk about them. And it should be shared with others when you’re done
Roopa Farooki’s fourth novel, The Way Things Look to Me, will be published in the United States in 2011. It has already been published in the UK, was long-listed for the Orange Prize in 2010, and was voted one of The Times Top 50 Paperbacks of 2009. It, too, promises to break new ground for this author.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she is a paraeducator specializing in Reading, Language Arts, and Technology. She is working on two novels for middle grade and young adult readers.