Half Life - Book of the Month
by Roopa Farooki
Singapore is the Lion City that wears many masks: Chinese, Malay, British, State, town and beautiful island. Floating on the edge of the Straits that merge with the South China Sea, it is in a unique position and has a unique history. Trim palm trees in pots line the road to the airport, where Jazz Ahsan is driving to meet Aruna, the love of his life, who is arriving on a night flight from London. Even when they attended the International School together, the only Pakistanis in their year, they were inseparable. Later they became lovers, but secretly to spare their Muslim families' feelings. They would marry when they came back from their universities, they thought. But Aruna is flawed: having lost her mother at three years old, she was brought up by servants and seldom saw her father. She began to have symptoms of bipolar disorder and an addictive personality which increased in severity when she went to university in England.
Once she leaves Singapore, where even chewing gum is not allowed, drugs are unthinkable and punishable by death, she neglects to take her medication and finds the accessibility of soft, then hard drugs, irresistible. She only realises she has a problem when she is mistaken for a prostitute as she waits for her dealer on a street corner late at night. She finds weaning herself off drugs extremely difficult, and becomes dependent on cigarettes, vodka, and, later, sex. This last suits her young, respectable English lover, Patrick, very well, and Aruna finds herself married to him within a year. Patrick is not bothered that the marriage to Aruna, undomesticated as she is, does not suit his family, especially his mother. But small things like that begin to bother Aruna and they find themselves bickering and even quarrelling. One morning, when Patrick is at work, Aruna is studying for her degree while eating her breakfast, and reads "It is time to stop fighting and go home". Without hesitation, without showering or brushing her teeth, she pulls on her jeans and a T-shirt and jacket, puts her passport and credit card in her bag and sets off in her flip-flops back home to Singapore, and, of course, to Jazz.
But after years of running away from herself Aruna discovers that that is the easy part. It is coming home that is hard.
Pakistan born Roopi Farooki was brought up in London and graduated from Oxford in 1995. HALF LIFE is her fourth novel. She is a gifted storyteller, managing to write with wit and compassion about a damaged girl and strained family ties. Her characters are flawed yet they are engaging, and this unpredictable narrative about a rather dysfunctional family is lively and original. I found it impossible to put this book down, and read it in a day.
Published by MacMillan – 400pp
Read our interview with Roopa Farooki.