Naipaul’s first novel in six years is another installment in the extended fictional autobiography begun with The Enigma of Arrival (1993) and A Way in the World (1994).
Its protagonist is Willie Chandran, only son of an Indian Hindu family, who escapes from the stultifying barrenness of his passive father’s reduced intellectual and emotional circumstances for college and modest literary success in London, then a gradually unraveling affair with an admiring reader who takes him to her family’s estate in West Africa. The novel records a progress toward professional and sexual maturity that’s simultaneously a rueful realization that Willie is “living” other people’s lives rather than emerging fully into his own—and one suspects that further sequels are forthcoming. Half a Life is discursive and occasionally static, replete with exhaustive exposition and summary in place of specificity and drama—and ought, therefore, to be an irredeemably dull book. It isn’t, though, because the author projects with remarkable subtlety and plangency the experiences of failing to realize one’s promise (especially in a marvelous opening story told by Willie’s father, about his own cautious vacillations between spirituality and career-building) and being forever a fish out of water, in other countries, among intimate acquaintances who’ll never be more than strangers. Willie’s timid entry into London intellectual life and journalistic labors, terrified ascension to authorship (of a book of stories that sounds very like Naipaul’s own debut, Miguel Street), and conflicted assimilation into the privileged world of Portuguese colonials who luxuriate in “comfort . . . squeezed from the hard land, like blood out of stone” are brilliantly described as risky balancing acts accomplished within a context of uncertainty created by the pressures of an insidious caste system Willie cannot shake off, however far he travels from his inhibiting origins. This intensely claustrophobic fiction may, therefore, tell us more about the essential Naipaul than he has ever heretofore revealed.
Hermetic, self-absorbed, and not at all above peevishness—and consistently fascinating by virtue of its potent rhetorical and logical starkness. The work of a master who has rarely, if ever, written better.