Family Life by Akhil Sharma - book review: 'Compassion and complexity in a stand-out novel'


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Akhil Sharma's sharply observed autobiographical novel Family Life begins as a story about an aspirational immigrant family's attempt to create a "better" life for themselves in the US. In his effort to assimilate, the narrator's father makes his sons watch the news and films such as The Empire Strikes Back. With religious devotion, the family prepares the elder son Birju for one of the best high schools.

These aspirations, however, are drowned at the bottom of a swimming pool. For this is where Birju hits his head one day and suffers brain damage. Henceforth, Family Life reveals the ways in which people respond to personal tragedy, including turning to the comfort and familiarity of religion, culture and community. The narrator's father becomes an alcoholic; in the middle of night he watches Hindi comedy films. The narrator's mother, clinging to an unerring faith that her son will get better, performs religious rituals, turns to "miracle" healers and eventually takes her son out of the nursing home to look after him at home. This faith also leads her, the novel suggests, to neglect her younger son, the narrator Ajay, who at the time of the accident is 10 years old.

For Ajay, it is reading, telling fellow pupils stories about his life and eventually writing that gives meaning to his life. For this is a novel, too, about writing as a mode of experiencing. "I began to see my family's pain as belonging in a story... at the idea of writing sentences that contained our suffering, I experienced both the triumph that I felt when I told Jeff and Michael Bu about Birju, and also a sort of detachment..."

While literature "saves" the narrator, there is also a suggestion that there is something disturbing about approaching emotions with such detachment; everything is material to be "used". Even as a child, the narrator is distant and self-aware; he performs love, anxious that it doesn't come naturally.

This self-awareness extends to the narrator's sense of inferiority and shame in respect to the West, to white Americans who curse as he and his mother walk down the street, who bully him at school. The novel reveals the subtle effects of white supremacy, and how it is internalised. For Ajay, the Indians with an American accent are better than recently arrived Indians. Above them are Jews, for they have white skin.

Stripped away, this version of Sharma's life tells a familiar story about the "suffocation" and "oppression" of South Asian family life (exacerbated by the accident) and his "escape" from this through literature and education. It is its compassion and complexity that makes this novel stand out.