Thursday, January 13, 2011

Review: Half a Life by V.S. Naipaul

Life has a crazy way of keeping us from the things we need to accomplish.  Sadly, I needed as much brain power as possible to scratch out the meanings behind the Nobel Prize winning author, V.S. Naipaul's Half a Life that I read over Christmas break.  This was not a relaxing read by any stretch of the imagination, but one that has kept my mind in conflict ever since.

Synopsis: Willie Somerset Chandran, born to an upper caste father and lower caste mother, felt the gap in his parent's station in life.  Not only had his father married his low-born wife out of a sense of pious self-sacrifice, even though he didn't love her at all, but he also abandoned his access to wealth by becoming a spiritual "vagabond" of sorts.  To this marriage, Willie and a younger sister were born.  Willie eventually made his way to London to get an education, in the hopes of escaping the social and family conflict he witnessed at home in India.  To a changing British world, this was not quite the case.  Willie was too dark and too Indian for his English speaking cohorts in school and around town, so he befriended those who were also cast offs of other regions of the old Empire.  Throughout this time, Willie worked on a collection of short stories that he used to express his feelings and thoughts, only to be taken advantage of by a British press that could market his stories as they wished, while taking most of the profits and prestige.  

After  multiple experiences with women of different nationalities and backgrounds, Willie learned that to steal away or date those women of his friends, was by far the easiest.  That was, until he met an African-born woman who saw herself reflected in the colonial writings of Willie Somerset Chandran.  From that point, Willie returned to Africa with her to experience the after effects of colonization, and the beginnings of social unrest with the taking back of a land that was not their own for so long.

Review:  It's nearly impossible to really write a review of Naipaul's Half a Life without including a gut reaction.  The multi-layered threading of ideas presented in the novel are mind-numbing, to say the least.  Every possible view and corner of race, social class, empire, colonization, education, and sexual politics are explored through the main character's life.  Just as you get the sense that you are nailing down a "point" being made, the narrative snakes its way in a different direction.   

Although I feel like I have read many books centered on these themes of identity, colonization, etc., I have to admit to feeling side-swiped by Naipaul's narrative style and message.  Maybe I wanted a more neatly, discoverable message.  Maybe it was the startling jump in 18 years in the narration that finally put the nail in the coffin for me.  Or, maybe it was the oddly callous approach to sex (not graphically described in any way) that left me concerned by the main character's mechanical way of life.  I wasn't so much shocked or appalled by Willie's life as I was concerned by his oddly disconnected, yet heightened existence.  On one hand he was disconnected from every social group or culture he lived among, and yet on the other, he blended in and had insights into the hypocrisies of every group in which he mingled.  It could be that this seeming "observation" mode taken by the main character is just the point?  Willie really was as the title says, always living "half a life" because he was always an observer in every culture, position, circle, or relationship that he was engaged.

Strangely, I'm glad that I tackled Half a Life.  In comparison to Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas, which I was familiar from a paper I wrote in graduate school, this later novel has a deeper sense of tension than I remember in his earlier piece.  In Half a Life, the narration is linear in one sense, but splintered and fractured in a very deconstructionist sort of way that forces the reader to feel the instability of the main character.  The concept of "still waters run deep" is a great way of describing the novel, in that the surface language and story feel smooth and uninterrupted, while the deep underpinnings of it are stirred and tumultuous beyond recognition.

 *FTC Disclosure:  This review was written from a library copy of the novel.


  1. Wow, what a review! I think I would have to have a very serene life to take on this book. At the moment, there are too many distractions to be put to the test. Thank you for the amazing review.

  2. Sounds like a challenging read. I've added it to my notebook, for future consideration.

  3. Very interesting post! I've never read Naipaul, but have both this title and an omnibus edition of A House for Mr. Biswas and A Bend in the River. Think I'll start with Mr. Biswas.

  4. Great review. I'm still pondering whether or not I want to tackle this one but you've given me a great idea of what I'll be facing.

  5. RuralView--Thanks. You're so nice. This really is a tough, gritty novel that had I not had a long break, I couldn't have gotten through.

    Heidenkind--Yes, there were so many moments that I felt shocked.

    Diane--I really am curious to see how someone else would feel about this book. I hope you do tackle it so I can see what you think!

    JoAnn--Yes, his earlier work is a little better and feels more cohesive than this one.

    Lisa--Thanks! I hope you share if you do read it!

  6. It's a great read, maybe read Mr Biswas first, that's also a wonderful book