Love stories aren’t really my thing, but Roopa Farooki’s newest novel, Half Life, shows many shades of love in a way that warms the heart, wets the eye, and expands the mind. The book opens with Aruna Ahmed Jones’ seemingly crazy and impulsive decision to leave her year-old marriage. She does this quite literally by stopping mid-breakfast, throwing on a light jacket, and making her way through the Tube to London’s Heathrow International Airport where she hops the next plane to her hometown of Kuala Lumpur, and back into the arms of lifelong friend and ex-lover Jazz Ahsan. We soon learn that two years ago Aruna left Jazz in a similarly rushed and unexplained exit, and the story progresses by attempting to resolve the characters’ (and reader’s) unanswered questions about her ostensibly hasty retreats.
To go into any depth about the somewhat unsettling plot would be to reveal too much; indeed, I recommend the reader skip even the publisher’s description on the front cover flap and dive headfirst into chapter one. The core of this story revolves around the destructive nature of family secrets and the reparative qualities of truth. Half Life is full of subtle yet astute observations about the personal and social functions of one’s identity as a person of a particular class, gender, nationality, and mental health status—and exemplifies how all are historically and geographically situated. Without being too obtuse or heavy-handed, the story is, ultimately, about finding one’s authentic self while avoiding being a detriment to those one cares for deeply.
Language makes the ordinary extraordinary, and Farooki’s gift is in the ease with which she perfectly captures the complexity of a moment with a casual, pithy description. Literary hat tips are littered throughout with tender references to such masterful figures as the Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore, British poet Wilfred Owen, and Jacobean dramatist John Ford—all of whose influences can be readily felt while turning the book’s pages. Farooki is obviously a thoughtful writer, and the story is executed with well-planned precision. Half Life is penned in a visceral style similar to that of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies or Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows. Farooki’s witty wordplay constructs a melancholy emotionality that mirrors the interplay between the main characters. The ubiquitous sense of suspense maintains reader’s interest even after the elements of surprise are effortlessly divulged.
Half Life is a substantive beach read that is engaging as it is accessible. But be sure to slather on the sunscreen or find a cozy spot in the shade before cracking the spine. You might just find you’re unable to put this book down once you pick it up.