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Half a Life
By V. S. Naipaul

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Half a Life

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Half a Life
By V. S. Naipaul
Center Point - Large Print Edition, (2002)
ISBN: 1-58547-176-3
Genre: Fiction

Reviewed by Auggie Moore - June 12, 2002

In our modern age of superficiality and the desire for instant gratification, truly outstanding works of literature, in the classical sense, are few and far between. While such works may not be plentiful, they do appear sporadically, and one such book is V. S. Naipaul's novel, Half a Life. This is a pragmatic coming-of-age tale that follows the life of Willie Somerset Chandran.

Naipaul's work is centered around life in India, and touches on numerous topics including the caste system, sex, and a writer's life. Half a Life not only artistically portrays Willie's life, but also offers readers a fascinating glimpse at Indian life and culture. Told in flowing, mellow prose that is rich in detail, Naipaul brings India to life. His writing is so vivid that you not only see the events chronicled, but your senses are also assailed by the sounds and smells of the region. In addition to bringing India to life, Naipaul is equally at ease in describing England and Africa, other lands that Willie travels in.

In this work, Naipaul illustrates the effect of marrying out of ones caste, and how it affects not only one's own life, but also other family members. For Willie, it was his parents who married out of their caste, and it is Willie who is forced to live a half life. In a land where caste is everything, Willie has no 'place' to which he rightly belongs. It is this lack of 'place' is to affect almost every aspect of his life, ranging from the schools he goes to, to his first sexual experience.

Throughout this novel, Naipaul, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, uses Willie's life to explore the numerous aspects of injustice that exist in the world. In India, it is the caste system, in England, the corruption of 'the good life', and in Africa, Western colonialism. This is not a happy or funny story. Rather, it is a sober look at the uneven cadence of existence.

Willie is an unlikely hero. As a child he blames everything on his father's choice to marry a lower caste woman, rather than accepting responsibility for his own actions. When he is grown, he aimlessly wonders about, trying to find a place where he will fit in. Worse, he turns into a competent womanizer who constantly cheats on his wife. Yet, through this picture of Willie's life, we see that how one's life plays out is determined in part by the vagrancies of birth. And, no matter how you choose to live, you will always be tethered to those aspects that surrounded your birth.

Our vicarious look at Willie's life ends abruptly when Willie is still only in his early forties. This ending seems abrupt, but it well suits a novel about the ambiguous and variable nature of life. What happens next? That is up to you to decide, for now Willie's fate has now been fostered upon your imagination.


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