Akhil Sharma’s Family Life is shaping up to be quite the literary sensation here in the US. There was Meg Wolitzer’s (of The Interestings) audio review of it for NPR in which she said the reader would become “fully absorbed” in the novel, Wave’s author Sonali Deraniyagala’s glowing review in The New York Times, and a host of other collective lit-gushings.
A special mention must be made of David Sedaris who, apart from writing a blurb to Sharma’s novel, recommended audience members at a reading of his book to buy Family Life. He said he had waited 12 years for it — i.e., since Sharma’s last novel. This kind of acclaim can prove intimidating and, for some, off putting. But Sharma’s novel is indeed a remarkable story. I can’t recommend it enough.
Family Life tells the story of a young family who immigrates to the United States from India in the 1970s. First the father goes and a year later sends airline tickets for his wife and two sons, Birju and Ajay. At that time, it was such a big deal for a family to be migrating that when Mrs Mishra receives the airline tickets, the neighbours gather to watch and she is forced to “tip” the chap who brought them to her. Overnight their new émigré status brings with it much reverence, awe and envy. Ajay — who is the story’s narrator — and at this point eight years old, is used to standing in line every day to get milk but gets called to the head of the line the day after the tickets’ arrival.
The reader is sucked into the Mishra family story from the get go — giddy in their excitement, hopes, apprehensions, eager to see how they’ll get on in the “land of dreams.” It is therefore tragic that after the initial excitement — look, says the father, hot water whenever you want! Look, wall to wall carpeting! Look, TV programmes all the time! — and just as the family begins to feel settled, the American dream turns sour when Birju suffers a traumatic head injury at the pool. This happens the summer before he is to start at a prestigious science school so it is doubly tragic because you think this immigrant family’s life was finally on the up. In fact, you’re almost always hoping for a reversal of fortune for the Mishras right until the end.
Birju’s injuries are serious; he suffers brain damage with slim chances of recovery yet Mrs Mishra is determined to nurse her son back to health. (She also tells everyone that he is in a coma, unable to say that his brain is damaged.) This devotion, written with an incredible delicateness, is perhaps at the heart of this family’s story, even if it is told by Ajay. Or perhaps particularly as it’s told by Ajay, a young voice, watching the anguish of his parents as they grapple to secure Birju’s future in whatever way they can. This includes letting a slew of faith healers into the house to heal their son. In the course of care giving, Mrs Mishra becomes a revered woman in the Indian community, almost saintly because of her devotion to her son. Members of the community come to seek blessings from her, irrespective of her finding it all rather ridiculous. That is unsurprising given how disconnected she is from reality, from the notion that her son will not get well.
Mr Mishra’s descent into alcoholism and the fissures in his marriage also make for riveting reading. Here is a man who imagined a pot of gold in America but got naught of his hopes. When the family first arrives in the US, Ajay even wonders if his father has become too American, offering them incentives to do well at school whereas back home in India that would never be the case.
As the family comes to terms with Birju’s health, and moves to New Jersey for better healthcare options before moving Birju into their home so they can care for him themselves, the grim realities sink in. It is remarkable to read how they hold themselves together when filled with such despair. The impact this has on Ajay is poignant: he veers from isolation at school to telling wild stories about his brother to talking to God. He suffers guilt when he does well at school, meets a girl who likes him back and other “big” moments that Birju would’ve gotten first — but he’s also desperate for attention and affection from his parents. This young boy, after Birju’s accident, grows up in an atmosphere of stifling despair. On one Christmas night, when he is still young, he demands from his parents a gift, as if a token of recognition for what he has had to endure. As he grows a little older, one time he sits in Birju’s bed and confides in him about his trouble at school. It is heartbreaking.
For a novel whose plot comes to an abrupt halt with Birju’s injury, it is nonetheless a riveting read. It is a testament to Sharma’s skill that he keeps the reader engaged in essentially a story about how the family survives thereafter. There are no twists and turns here; it is a small series of events that occur as Ajay grows into himself, as the marriage disintegrates, as life continues. It is a masterful story told by a master storyteller.
By Akhil Sharma
W.W. Norton & Company, US