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Half a Life Hardcover – October 16, 2001

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Editorial Reviews Review

Half a Life finds the veteran Booker and Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul on familiar territory, blending autobiography and fiction in an exploration of the "half lives" of individuals brought up in the English colonies and educated in metropolitan cities.

Naipaul's protagonist is Willie Somerset Chandran, named after Somerset Maugham's encounter with Willie's father in the 1930s while traveling "to get material for a novel about spirituality." Willie travels to England for his education, where he becomes "part of the special, passing bohemian-immigrant life of London of the late 1950s." Willie soon realizes that his colonial background allows him to write short stories for well-meaning white liberals, and he begins "to understand that he was free to present himself as he wished" and that he could "remake himself and his past" through his writing. The effect is suffocating rather than liberating, and he marries a vaguely sketched "girl or young woman from an African country," who has read his one published book. Willie begins another "half life" in colonial Mozambique, where he soon tires of the domestic and sexual tedium of plantation life and flees to Germany, mournfully reflecting that "I have been hiding for too long."

This is classic Naipaul, with its effortless dissection of the damaging personal consequences of post-war decolonization, but its virtue seems its primary vice, as the novel feels like a conflation of several earlier Naipaul books, including The Mimic Men and the brilliant A Bend in the River. Consequently, some readers may well find that Half a Life reads more like half a novel. --Jerry Brotton,

From Publishers Weekly

V.S. Naipaul has often been accused of being ungenerous, especially in his scathing accounts of Third World countries. His slim new novel tacitly poses the question of the worth of generosity without clarity and purpose. Willie Chandran, the central figure here, is born in India in the 1930s, the son of a bitter mixed caste marriage between a Brahmin and a "backwards" person, or untouchable. Willie learns as a child to despise his father's ineffectuality and his mother's coarseness. His father's vague motive in marrying his mother had been to break out of the provincial mold in which he was raised and to "live out a life of sacrifice," but too late he discovered that he retained all the prejudices of his caste and despised his wife. Going to London on a scholarship, Willie mixes in immigrant and bohemian circles, and even publishes a book. Naipaul's detached rendering of Willie's travails shows what happens to a young man who pieces his life together around the great, central dread of not being taken seriously the image of his father as an "idler" is always in his mind. Willie meets Ana, a woman of mixed African descent, when she writes him a fan letter about his novel. They become lovers. Willie goes back with Ana to her large outback estate in the "half and half" world of a Portuguese colony like Mozambique, where he remains for 18 years. Naipaul's plain narrative is studded with beautifully realized scenes, such as the London party at which a newspaper editor reads his own, self-written obituary, or the night Willie goes to an African brothel with Alvaro, an estate overseer. Although this novel does not aspire to the breadth of Naipaul's earlier fiction, it reminds us that his vision is on par with Conrad's or Graham Greene's. 40,000 first printing; 5-city author tour.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf (October 16, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375407375
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375407376
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (69 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,460,659 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

37 of 38 people found the following review helpful By James E. Carroll on November 11, 2001
Format: Hardcover
A tenet of our civilization is that an education will prepare us to read, ponder and presumably enjoy the great writers of literature. And so, university diploma in hand, I reached out for Half A Life by the winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature, V.S. Naipaul. Admittedly not having read anything previously by Naipaul, I was anxious to read this relatively short work. Alas, there is a lot to ponder but little to enjoy in this book.
It doesn't take the reader long to realize that Naipaul is a master writer. The prose is simple; his sentences crisp and short; the tale easily unfolds. The main character is Willie Somerset Chandron, and his life is the tale Naipaul tells. Early on in the book, Willie is described as "the mission-school student who had not completed his education, with no idea of what he wanted to do, except to get away from what he knew, and yet with very little idea of what lay outside what he knew..." And so, the book traces Willie's aimlessness and his search to find his place in life as he wanders from India to England to Africa.
Naipaul overlays many themes to explain Willie's lack of engagement in life: the Indian caste system, racial prejudices, youthful rebellion to name a few and explores them in unique ways. The combination of them is overwhelming to think about, let alone live through, and perhaps that was Naipaul's thesis in explaining why Willie couldn't fully engage.
This is a difficult book not to discuss with someone. I think members of book discussion clubs would like it very much for the number of issues raised and the life it describes. Anyone who reads this book will appreciate fine writing, even if they don't come away entertained.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on October 17, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Naipaul's Nobel Prize for Literature celebrates the long and illustrious career of a writer of extraordinary narrative gifts, amply demonstrated in this novel. The reader can choose any page of the book at random and be stunned by a graceful turn of phrase, a unique observation, the pleasing alternation of starkly simple and elegantly complex sentences, or a perceptive comment presented with grace. Though it is relatively short, it is dense in its thematic development, tracing the peripatetic life of Willie Somerset Chandran across three continents, and from his teen years to his early 40's, as he attempts to fit in, to be part of some mainstream.

The offspring of a Brahmin functionary in a maharajah's court and an Untouchable woman, someone to whom his father was drawn temporarily in an effort to emulate the sacrifice of Gandhi, Willie belongs to neither group, an outsider even to the lowest caste. He escapes to England, where he remains an outsider, for his schooling and an early career as a writer, eventually fleeing again with Ana, a Portuguese-African woman, to her farm in Mozambique, where he lives for eighteen years. These are eighteen years in which he remains alienated, however, living half a life in a half-developed country to which he, apparently, is only half-committed.

The political and racial tensions of the novel--the bloody independence movement in India, the Notting Hill race riots in London, and the guerrilla movement for independence in Mozambique--are vivid and dramatic, paralleling Willie's personal conflicts. His early sexual encounters, which might have brought him some sense of belonging, are unfulfilling, however, laden with racial overtones and additional tensions, and described by Naipaul in startingly passionless and unerotic prose.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By suetonius on February 19, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I was eager to read Naipaul's first novel in years even though the reviews were decidedly more polite than enthusiastic. Paul Theroux's review in the Independent was quite harsh but I attributed that to past bad blood.
This short novel tells the story of the first 41 years in the life of Willie Chandran. Willie is a Hindu Indian born of a Brahmin father and "backward" (untouchable) mother. This mixed marriage makes him an outsider in his native village. He is educated by Christian missionaries and goes to college in London. He writes a book of short stories while still a student. This slender book causes him to meet Ana, a mixed race Portuguese from Mozambique. Ana thinks she has found a soulmate in Willie; his writing has touched her so deeply. In actuality Willie has merely rewritten scenes remembered from old Hollywood movies. Willie sees in Ana a way to avoid returning to India or facing the reality of finishing school without a job to go to in London. Willie relocates to Ana's estate in Mozambique and settles into a quiet life. Ana has inherited the estate from her grandfather. Willie and Ana do little work; they attend parties and visit other settlers. Almost all of their friends are of mixed race. The pure white Portuguese settlers tend to stand aloof from those that are of mixed race, regardless of comparable wealth. Willie begins to go to brothels with an acquaintance, an estate manager from a nearby farm. He then begins an affair with Graca, the mixed race wife of another estate manager. In the background African rebels are fighting the Portuguese colonial government and, so slowly that is almost imperceptible, they take over...
The book left me with a curiously empty feeling. I never was able to empathize with the hero, Willie, or any of the other characters.
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