Family Life by Akhil Sharma; book review


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The Independent Culture

Family Life, Akhil Sharma’s first novel for 13 years, tells the story of Ajay, a young boy who moves from Delhi to Queens, New York, accompanied by his parents and older brother Birju. The driving force is Ajay’s father, who “believed that if he were somewhere else, especially somewhere where he earned in dollars and so was rich, he would be a different person and not feel the way he did”.

Each family member re-sets this cultural dislocation differently, with Birju proving by far the most successful. Suddenly popular and clever, he wins a place at the prestigious Bronx High School for Science. It is the first of Sharma’s many tragic ironies that Birju is destroyed by their new American reality. During a swimming party, he suffers severe brain damage after being knocked unconscious underwater. Ajay later recalls: “I couldn’t believe that everything had changed because of three minutes.”

Change is, perhaps, not quite the right word. Bedridden and in need of 24-hour care, Birju becomes stasis personified, trapping his family in a series of increasingly grim holding patterns. His father drowns his grief in surreptitious drinking. His mother turns to religious superstition and miracle workers.

Family Life’s trajectory seems fixed on a dismal conclusion. Yet Sharma’s most audacious trick in the final pages is to perform a gigantic somersault and reveal that the novel has really been about Ajay all along. Although every event is filtered through his perspective, it is easy to forget our inconspicuous narrator. In this, Sharma places the reader in the position of Ajay’s parents, who, understandably perhaps, neglect their younger son in favour of Birju and their own self-centredness.

Denied a clearly defined sense of self, Ajay proves especially vulnerable to fantasy and fiction. Addicted to the lifestyle “fairytales” (a favourite world) spun on American television, he invents stories about his own family to enhance poignancy and minimise shame. This instinct for invention is gradually transmuted into Ajay’s fledgling attempts at writing, which breeds genuine compassion and something like release. “Your brother can eat pain. He can sit all day at his desk and eat pain,” his mother tells Birju. It is tempting to read Ajay as a thinly veiled portrait of the artist as a young Akhil Sharma, whose unassuming yet unusual imagination is shaped by sadness, estrangement, isolation, and introspection.

More a prose style than a character, Ajay produces extraordinary sentences using deceptively ordinary language. Here is a description, at once surreal and touching, of Ajay’s ambivalence towards America, how even the most commonplace object could bewitch and disorient him. “There were parking meters on the sidewalk, gray metal poles the shape of matchsticks, upright, proper brave, waiting for a coin so that they could come to life. When I walked past a parking meter, I would reach out and touch it.”

Family Life is a wonderful novel about misery that is anything but miserable. Sharma entertains and moves, wrestles with narratives both grand and deeply intimate. The sobering conclusion offers no easy answers to life’s pain and mysteriousness. Luckily the questions are more than enough.