Book Review: Half a World Away

I have been a bit absent with book reviews – they seem a bit trivial at the moment with everything going on. But I guess people still want to read! But I’m back with another good one! I had high expectations for this and wasn’t disappointed.

Synopsis from Goodreads

“Strangers living worlds apart.
Strangers with nothing in common.

But it wasn’t always that way…

Kerry Hayes is single mum, living on a tough south London estate. She provides for her son by cleaning houses she could never hope to afford. Taken into care as a child, Kerry cannot ever forget her past.

Noah Martineau is a successful barrister with a beautiful wife, daughter and home in fashionable Primrose Hill. Adopted as a child, Noah always looks forward, never back.

When Kerry reaches out to the sibling she lost on the day they were torn apart as children, she sets in motion a chain of events that will have life-changing consequences for them both.”

Review

Title: Half a World Away

Author: Mike Gayle

Genres: Fiction, urban fiction, domestic fiction

My rating: ★★★★

Half a World Away is narrated between two protagonists – Kerry, who lives in a tower block in south London, and Noah who has a large house in Primrose Hill. I think this dual narration really serves to reinforce the dividing lines between them.

Kerry and her son, Kian, live their day to day lives struggling to make ends meet. Kerry works long hours cleaning wealthy houses in London, and is a full time, single Mum. The reader soon finds out that Kerry spent a significant amount of time in care, after her Mother struggled with parenting and various forms of addiction.

As a young child, Kerry spent most of her childhood caring for her younger brother, Noah. However, they were separated when Noah was adopted, whilst Kerry grew up in a care home. Ever since, Kerry has been longing for the day when they can reunite. From the age of eighteen, the age where legally you are allowed to request contact with your birth family, she writes Noah letters in the hope he will make contact with her. These letters are scattered throughout the book and add a certain rawness to Kerry’s emotions, by illustrating her life long hope of having her brother in her life again.

Noah’s life is very different. Although he’s adopted, he never really faces up to his former past. There is a lot he doesn’t know about his previous circumstances, and spends a lot of time shying away from it. He is adopted into a middle-class, privileged family and reaps the benefits of this lifestyle. As a barrister his life has gone in the opposite direction in comparison to his sister, Kerry. One day a letter from Kerry manages to reach him directly, which turns his world upside down. He never knew he had a sister and now he has to decide whether to recover his past life. Torn between a relationship breakdown with his wife, fraught conversations with his parents about his birth family, and his own personal struggles, Noah has to make a decision about the direction of the next stage in his life.

Image: Forbes. Street in Primrose Hill, London.

I thought this book was incredibly clever as it embodies the dilemma’s adopted, and care leavers face when deciding whether they want to contact their birth family. I particularly resonated with the feelings of both characters as I was adopted myself. I definitely empathized with both Kerry and Noah, as each character swung back and forth between wanting to know about their past, and worrying they’ll find out something they don’t want to hear.

Additionally, it explores the concept of “family” and what it really means. For Noah, family is definitely not as much about blood relations but who raises you – nonetheless, this doesn’t completely stifle his curiosity. For Kerry, she had always longed for that contact with her brother which suggests she felt that connection to a blood relative. It’s different for everybody, but the book raises the questions a person has to go through when wanting to find out about their birth family. It can put adoptive parents in an awkward place – luckily, Noah’s parents are very understanding and encourage him to learn more about his past.

Above all, class and difference in opportunity is at the heart of this book which highlights how time in care can influence your future outcomes. For most care leavers, Kerry’s situation is more of the norm. Care leavers are more likely to develop mental health issues, turn to addictive substances, live in poverty and are less likely to attend university. Having characters which are two polar opposites – really symbolizes this divide in opportunity that care leavers face. With the dual narration, the reader really gets an in depth insight into how different each siblings lives really are.

They also contrast as they had different fathers but shared the same, white mother. Kerry is a white woman, whilst Noah’s father was a black man. When the narration is told through Noah, we get an insight into his experience of this and difficult conversations he has had, having grown up with a white adopted family. People often had their queries over the family situation and wanted to know more. However, the way Gayle intertwines issues of class, race and disruption in early life – really reinforces the idea that society is naturally unequal. This is an ongoing, brutal reality of the modern world and symbolized so eloquently by paralleling two characters from such different backgrounds.

Image: Joe Newman for the Daily Mail. South London tower block.

Kerry’s perspective is an interesting one – she worries about meeting up with her brother because she lives in a council estate, doesn’t have much money and has ‘scruffy clothes.’ Kian is exposed to bullying at school because unlike his peers, he doesn’t have the latest trainers or PlayStation game. Her flat is tiny, but Kerry has put her heart and soul into is over the years to make it as nice as possible. Differences between the two siblings become eroded over the course of the book as they discover how similar they really are as people.

This book is laced with sadness (which I can’t go into for giving the plot away) but its execution highlights the value of time and how precious it is. Nearly twenty years have passed between Noah and Kerry, and the reader really hopes they can rekindle their relationship. But like all care and adoption situations, it’s awkward at first, messy and complicated. This is demonstrated so honestly in this book and I really take my hat off to Gayle, as it is hard to portray the realities of these feelings in a novel.

I loved this book, as it was easy to read but was a poignant story told with honesty and a huge amount of relatability. I think this is the first adult novel I’ve read that looks at the impact of being in care, and I really appreciate it just for doing that alone. The characters are crafted so well, each narration is told in such a down to earth and chatty style, that as a reader, I really felt I knew them.

However, it’s not a ‘beautiful’ novel as such, there’s no messing about. As someone who loves a bit of literary fiction and use of flowery language – there is none of this here. The language and prose is nothing out of the ordinary. Rather, maybe the rawness of the language is the entire point. Emotions are highly charged, and it would be wrong to cover these in littered metaphors and incomprehensible symbolism. Gayle gets to the point, and rightly so.

An honest, down to earth, and heartfelt story which illustrates the variability of outcomes that result from time spent in care, and having a disturbed upbringing. This book is littered with warmth and uplift but simultaneously, endless sadness and regret. It will definitely move you and re-asses your value of time, loved ones and family relationships.

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