It is not news that modern publishing demands that all novels be categorised into easily definable and clearly marketable genres. And we all understand that one of the genres that has proved the most lucrative is the female-authored tale of multicultural London, in which emotional stories run parallel to the political ructions: something with enough "themes" to provoke debate at book clubs, but enough emotional resonance to ensure that good friends buy copies for each other and all their friends afterwards.
It is a genre that the Lahore-born but London-raised Roopa Farooki has excelled in: her debut, Bitter Sweets, was shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers in 2007, and last year's The Way Things Look to Me was longlisted for this year's Orange Prize. She has been compared with previous winners Zadie Smith and Andrea Levy in the past, and Half Life, her latest, makes references to both "going" and "coming" home on the book jacket.
Farooki's writing, however, is considerably more sophisticated than such easy categorisation would suggest, as is Half Life's central protagonist, Aruna. Raised in Singapore but of Bengali descent, Aruna is living in London as the novel opens. An academic married to a devoted, dependable doctor, and living in a stylish east London apartment, she embodies the modern urban dream. Then, pages in, she leaves her porridge on the breakfast counter and walks away from it all. Shaking, and barely dressed, she heads for the airport and back to Singapore, consumed by the urgent desire to make peace with what she left behind. At this point, the novel looks as if it is going to go in one of two directions – either a search for romantic resolution by a woman who has married on a whim and clearly regrets it, or, more likely, a search for identity itself. It seems most probable that the novel will combine the two, in something perfectly pitched for the Book Club Promised Land.
What follows is not nearly as predictable as this cynic feared. While the aforementioned themes do hover in the background, Aruna's diagnosis of bipolar disorder nudges itself to the foreground, as do her disastrous attempts to cope with it by using street drugs bought on murky corners, and vodkas snuck in at breakfast time. Simultaneously, we hear the voices and stories of Jazz, the childhood friend and one-time lover to whom she is largely returning, and Hari Hassan, the poet whose words inspired Aruna's sudden change of heart.
But this is doubtlessly Aruna's story. She is not an easy character to like, but her self-destructive mission is utterly compelling – as is Farooki's prose. The dialogue is sometimes more than a little wobbly, particularly when Aruna is with Jazz, but it is only so starkly noticeable because of the dazzling foil Farooki's descriptions provide. Moments of utter emotional bleakness are rendered bearable by the fragile beauty of the images Farooki uses to describe them.
Ultimately, this is proper storytelling – we are provided with a character we find ourselves caring about, and want to discover what becomes of her. Novels are published as stories of multicultural Britain and submitted for awards to the point that they are sometimes indistinguishable, but one thing will always stand out when it matters: the author's voice. And Farooki has one to be proud of.