Summary and book reviews of Half A Life by V.S. Naipaul

Half A Life

By V.S. Naipaul

Half A Life
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2001,
    224 pages.
    Paperback: Oct 2002,
    224 pages.

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Book Summary

Winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature.

One of the finest living writers in the English language, V. S. Naipaul gives us a tale as wholly unexpected as it is affecting, his first novel since the exultantly acclaimed A Way in the World, published seven years ago.

Half a Life is the story of Willie Chandran, whose father, heeding the call of Mahatma Gandhi, turned his back on his brahmin heritage and married a woman of low caste---a disastrous union he would live to regret, as would the children that issued from it. When Willie reaches manhood, his flight from the travails of his mixed birth takes him from India to London, where, in the shabby haunts of immigrants and literary bohemians of the 1950s, he contrives a new identity. This is what happens as he tries to defeat self-doubt in sexual adventures and in the struggle to become a writer---strivings that bring him to the brink of exhaustion, from which he is rescued, to his amazement, only by the love of a good woman. And this is what happens when he returns with her---carried along, really---to her home in Africa, to live, until the last doomed days of colonialism, yet another life not his own.

In a luminous narrative that takes us across three continents, Naipaul explores his great theme of inheritance with an intimacy and directness unsurpassed in his extraordinary body of work. And even as he lays bare the bitter comical ironies of assumed identities, he gives us a poignant spectacle of the enervation peculiar to a borrowed life. In one man’s determined refusal of what he has been given to be, Naipaul reveals the way of all our experience. As Willie comes to see, "Everything goes on a bias. The world should stop, but it goes on." A masterpiece of economy and emotional nuance, Half a Life is an indelible feat of the imagination.

Chapter One

A Visit from Somerset Maugham

Willie Chandran asked his father one day, "Why is my middle name Somerset? The boys at school have just found out, and they are mocking me."

His father said without joy, "You were named after a great English writer. I am sure you have seen his books about the house."

"But I haven't read them. Did you admire him so much?"

"I am not sure. Listen, and make up your own mind."

And this was the story Willie Chandran's father began to tell. It took a long time. The story changed as Willie grew up. Things were added, and by the time Willie left India to go to England this was the story he had heard.


The writer (Willie Chandran's father said) came to India to get material for a novel about spirituality. This was in the 1930s. The principal of the maharaja's college brought him to me. I was doing penance for something I had done, and I was living as a mendicant in the outer courtyard of the big temple. It was a...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The novel begins with Willie’s question to his father about why he was named after the English novelist W. Somerset Maugham. If a name is a crucial piece of a person’s identity, how useful is the information Willie receives? How does Maugham come across in his responses to Willie’s and his father’s letters?

  2. How does Willie’s father become a holy man? What is comical, and what is reprehensible, in the choices he makes? Is he a person trapped in circumstances beyond his control, or might he have done things differently? What is the source of his narcissism? Considering that in Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, the holy man is believed by his Western admirers to be a person of true integrity,...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Half a Life has a larger significance than simply rehashing a sad event in the past; in fact, it's one of those rare books that I would recommend to almost any reader. We all have to find ways to cope with loss and much of this adjustment is hidden from our everyday routine and acquaintances. Though Strauss's memoir has a painful premise, I found it a surprising comfort to understand another person's response to tragedy, especially when I noticed that the author's most private thoughts, though they were almost shocking in their honesty, weren't all that different from my own inner dialogue regarding my own losses and difficulties. Readers will see past the painful circumstances to the beauty of a man who has spent half his life making decisions and living his life in light of very difficult truth.  

Media Reviews
Los Angeles Times Book Review - Lee Siegel

A masterpiece of implicitness . . . explicitly concerned with drawing out the metaphysical-private while keeping it embedded in society and history . . . The ironies in Half a Life wind like a fugue into infinity . . . Identity is an enigma . . . To make that sentiment breathe in the mouth of a living character, and then rise from the page with silent laughter, is a beautiful completion the mark of a genius and a cause of unending delight.

New York Times Book Review - Michael Gorra

As disquieting as anything [Naipaul] has ever written . . . His terse prose works, as always, to imply a world in a phrase.

Miami Herald - Betsy Willeford

A troubling novel, genuinely moving . . . disturbing in all the right ways . . . the scenes of social encounters are brilliant, set against the twilight of colonial rule . . . A stunning book, three continents, three journeys, the evergreen themes of caste and class, of growing up.

The Atlantic Monthly - Diane Mehta

Naipaul's style is so frank it seems intimate, and the awful characters are studied and well crafted. Behind the matter-of-fact style is a cuttingly ironic view of human relations . . . When Naipaul talks, we listen.

New York Review of Books - J. M. Coetzee

Naipaul is a master of English prose, and the prose of Half a Life is as clean and cold as a knife.

New York Times - Michiko Kakutani

'Half a Life,' the fierce new novel by V. S. Naipaul, the new Nobel laureate, is one of those rare books that stands as both a small masterpiece in its own right and as a potent distillation of the author's work to date . . . It deftly combines Dickensian delight in character with political and social observation . . . while recounting with uncommon elegance and acerbity the coming of age of its hero, Willie Chandran ... Mr. Naipaul endows his story with the heightened power of a fable. With 'Half a Life' he has given us a powerful tale of one man's journey from childhood to middle age while at the same time creating a resonant parable about the convulsions of modern history, both the dying of old inequities and the rise of new illusions, and their spiritual legacy of homelessness and dislocation.

Literary Review - Farrukh Dhondy

Fresh . . . A novel with a purpose . . . Through the evocation of three continents and several decades, without calling on public events and purely through the narrative of a life, V. S. Naipaul gives us a moral tale which captures the evanescence of our times.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Naipaul's first novel in six years is another installment in the extended fictional autobiography. . . . [This novel] may tell us more about the essential Naipaul than he has ever heretofore revealed. . . . The work of a master who has rarely, if ever, written better.

Sunday Times (UK) - John Carey

As sly and funny as anything Naipaul has written . . . He is still mining his richest obsessions . . . The classic that his new novel calls to mind is Voltaire's Candide. There is the same mocking simplicity of style, the same heartless elegance of design . . . Nobody who enjoys seeing English beautifully controlled should miss this novel.

The Observer Review - Jason Cowley

A surprise and a pleasure . . . here, at last, is a work of pure imagination, though the themes are characteristic in their complex peculiarity . . . Naipaul has produced the most complex and demanding body of work of any post-war British writer . . . In sentences of great precision and balance, Naipaul reanimates the dilemmas of the late and post-colonial experience . . . He reminds us again of what a fine and unusual writer he is . . . In the canon of contemporary British writing he is without peer a cold, clear-eyed prophet, a scourge of sentimentality, irrationalism and lazy left-liberal prejudices. Read him.

The Independent (UK) - Paula Burnett

Naipaul writes a prose as clean as a stripped wand, but however plain the language, the ideas it delivers are not. . . . He is still peerless as a deviser of the shocking icon. He builds a scene of metaphysical loss as compelling as any Renaissance canvas of the expulsion from paradise.

Independent - Stuart Price

One of the world's greatest living novelists . . . A writer whose world-view has been characterised by rigorous inquiry . . . A fascinating study . . . Naipaul has thankfully lost none of his grace, style, or storytelling power in this beautiful novel.

Evening Standard (UK) - Rachel Cusk

Like a series of musical variations, the novel that follows [the first lines] never departs from them in essence . . . This is brilliant, affecting stuff the novel's melancholy drama is played out on the furthest margins of fiction, where things are recollected rather than observed.

Daily Telegraph (UK) - Jonathan Bate

Genuinely powerful in a deeply politically incorrect way.

Times Literary Supplement (UK) - Amit Chaudhuri

No writer has written more tellingly about the vocation of writing than V. S. Naipaul. . . . this new novel, Half a Life, shows us that Naipaul's absorption in how he came to be a writer is still fresh. . . . The pages about London glow, and bear comparison with anything that Naipaul has done . . . Almost casually, but beautifully, achieved . . . Captures in miniature the exceptional trajectory of Naipaul's oeuvre-the figure of the father, the life of the writer, and, finally, an enquiry into the origins of the colonial landscape itself.

Author Blurb The Guardian - Maya Jaggi
The foremost literary interpreter of the third world for a British and American readership.

Reader Reviews
Muhammad.Quddus

In the beginning, the novel is terrifying. The Indian setting and the stories of sacrifices. The stories beg the reader to connect with the history of not just of Indian but of Hinduism. The journey to England and to Africa evoke more sense of horror...   Read More

Vivien Lee Jensen

After reading this book,which I thoroughly enjoyed, I re-read "A house for Mr. Biswas", prescribed reading for my A-levels in 1969. Naipaul's characters still have the power to make me laugh and cry, as they struggle to make themselves ...   Read More

sharon vawda

Literate persons who do not read half a life, will die having had half a life, pardon the pun. When I need to be revitalised, I read A house for Mr. Biswas, now I can be totally revitalised for the next few years having read half a life, its ...   Read More

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