Half a World Away

Mike Gayle

Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99

This captivating and affecting sixteenth novel from the prolific Mike Gayle tells of the reunion of two half-siblings, separated in childhood when their mother could no longer take care of them. Kerry, now in her forties, was raised in a care home and now lives on a run-down housing estate with her ten-year-old son, Kian, whose deadbeat father shows barely any interest in him. She’s a devoted mum who fits a cleaning job in around childcare to make ends meet, but is well aware than on her income she can’t provide for Kian in the way that his schoolmates’ parents can.

Her brother Noah, eight years younger than Kerry and black, has had a very different life. Adopted as a two-year-old by a white academic couple, he has enjoyed a close and secure family life, received a good education and become a barrister. At 37, he has a wife and daughter of his own, but his marriage isn’t without its problems. Having benefited from a happy upbringing, Noah has never felt any curiosity about his origins, and always deflects questions from his wife, Rosalind, about how he feels about being adopted. It’s just not something that interests him, and he feels that’s quite reasonable, though it leaves Rosalind feeling shut out from an important part of his life.

However, Noah can no longer keep a closed door on the past now he’s received a letter from Kerry, who has tracked him down, revealing herself to be the older sister he never knew he had. After an awkward initial meeting, the reunited siblings, who live such different lives and have so little else in common, commit to getting to know each other. They explore their connection on a trip to the seaside and a pilgrimage to the first home they ever lived in, Noah gets to learn a little about the mother he doesn’t remember and gets to bond with his new nephew, Kian.

But there’s s shadow looming over Noah’s relationship with his newly-discovered family. His natural reticence is holding him back from revealing them to his wife and adoptive parents, even though Rosalind has implored him to be more open with her. And the tone darkens further when Kerry reveals the real reason she sought Noah out.

Writing chapters alternately from Kerry’s and Noah’s points of view, Gayle gives them distinct, recognisable voices, exploring the people their disrupted childhoods and contrasting paths through life have moulded them into. They not only make an immediate impression but are likely to live on in readers’ memories longer than many fictional characters. Consequently, once Gayle starts to tug on the heartstrings it’s to devastating effect. He weaves an engaging plot which allows him to examine as many of the implications of their situation as he can without it feeling contrived or over-egged – although one is left with the lingering feeling that he is trying to wring so much out if it that, in the emotionally punishing final stages, not only is the reader drained but so is the theme.