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A novel is a collection of facts that just happen to have been made up. As the reader reads they stream in to the reader’s imagination and form a virtual equivalent of what was in the writer’s head. The efficacy of this transaction is in direct ratio to the veracity of the author’s facts. The better they are, the sharper the world that takes shape in the reader’s psyche. As readers we know this. Mediocre texts generate fuzzy chimeras, while more authoritative narratives so convince we can talk about the characters in the story, for example, just as we talk about our friends because they are as real as our friends. But beyond these is an even higher kind of novel that does more than engage. This kind occupies you so absolutely that while you read and for a while after you finish, the specificities of your own life don’t exist because they have been supplanted by the specificities of the author’s invented world. This kind of usurpation is the greatest pleasure a reader can know and Family Life by Akhil Sharma is one of those rare novels that does this.
The narrative of Family Life is thus: the Mishra’s – mother, father and two sons, Birju and his younger brother Ajay (who tells the story and is the novel’s pivot) emigrate from India to the US in 1978. For Ajay’s older brother, Birju, the New World is initially a triumph until an accident in a swimming pool causes catastrophic brain damage, after which he needs twenty-four care. Initially he receives this in medical settings, but then he goes home and is cared for by his parents and his brother. The story of Birju’s care is the kernel of the novel, it’s living heart.
As a reading experience Family Life desolates and infuriates. It prompts questions too. Why should the suffering rich get better care than the suffering rest? Isn’t all human suffering equal? However, alongside its subtle interrogation of inequality (this isn’t a febrile work of social criticism) the novel also celebrates the Mishra family’s achievement. For all their imperfections, and they have plenty, (there are no paragons in this novel), somehow they cope and somehow they meet Birju’s needs, which is a kind of triumph and, for a reader, it is profoundly consoling that they manage this.
Suffering and the struggle to ameliorate suffering are not unknown in fiction but Family Life pulls off the extraordinary feat of showing them in their correct alignment. Closing the book, having known this mix of light and dark, you are left with the sense that while reading you were actually at the core of human experience and what it is to be alive. This is the highest form of achievement in literature. Few manage it. This novel does. Triumphantly. Luminously. Movingly. All hail Family Life by Akhil Sharma.
About the Book
We meet the Mishra family in Delhi in 1978, where eight-year-old Ajay and his older brother Birju play cricket in the streets, waiting for the day when their plane tickets will arrive and they and their mother can fly across the world and join their father in America. America to the Mishras is, indeed, everything they could have imagined and more: when automatic glass doors open before them, they feel that surely they must have been mistaken for somebody important. Pressing an elevator button and the elevator closing its doors and rising, they have a feeling of power at the fact that the elevator is obeying them. Life is extraordinary until tragedy strikes, leaving one brother severely brain-damaged and the other lost and virtually orphaned in a strange land. Ajay, the family’s younger son, prays to a God he envisions as Superman, longing to find his place amid the ruins of his family’s new life.
Heart-wrenching and darkly funny, Family Life is a universal story of a boy torn between duty and his own survival.
About the Author
Akhil Sharma is the author of An Obedient Father, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Best American Short Stories, and O. Henry Award Stories. A native of Delhi, he lives in New York City and is an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University, Newark.
Beautifully hypnotic, Sharma’s novel revolves around the ups and downs of a young boy, Ajay, who is practically orphaned when tragedy strikes his family. Alternating between gut wrenching emotion and a child’s selfish, dark humor, Ajay learns to navigate his family’s new normal, sharing his observations with a brutal honesty.
For the price of success that is a theme in all those other stories of the same author – demonstrated, in this novel in particular, by a sure and steady control of language in the face of disaster – is the loss of a self. Sharma’s plain style, its gaps and fissures and mighty sense of lack, is both proof of the inability of words to render grief and a demonstration that they can do exactly that. Family Life breaks all those rules to do with writing fiction: Sharma’s simple words tell in order that they might show. The novel has been named as a New York Times Top 10 of 2014.