illus of family meeting at the airport
© Illustration by Adam Hancher

Family Life, by Akhil Sharma, Faber, RRP£14.99/WW Norton, RRP$23.95, 224 pages

Akhil Sharma’s new novel Family Life comes out of hard autobiographical experience. Sharma, along with his parents and his older brother, migrated from India to the US in the late 1970s. After a promising start for the family, Sharma’s older brother dived into a swimming pool and struck the bottom. The accident left him physically and mentally disabled, and radically re-routed the family’s plans in America. Years later Sharma, already the author of a well-received novel, An Obedient Father (2000), as well as a series of short stories for the New Yorker and Granta, decided to pursue a novel inspired by his family’s situation. He spent 12 years on it and wrote no less than 7,000 pages along the way, consumed by the effort of getting it right. While this back story invests the book with immediate interest, its distinctive achievement in storytelling terms alone makes it one of the year’s literary standouts.

This distinctiveness is evident from the first page, when the narrator, Ajay Mishra, tells us that his gloomy, ageing father recently reproached him for having been a selfish baby. His father’s evidence? “I would start to cry as soon as he turned on the TV. I am forty and he is seventy-two. When he said this, I began tickling him …‘Who’s the sad baby?’ I said. ‘Who’s the baby who cries all the time?’ ” There is a strange dynamic to this family, an unexpected combination of tension and release, blunt accusation and unnerving reaction. These are people living off-kilter, for reasons that soon emerge.

Initially, however, the reasons seem altogether familiar: the Mishras are a Delhi family whose father migrates to the US in 1978, and sends for his wife and two sons a year later. In the typically clear, simple prose of a young boy’s impressions, Sharma unfolds the novel’s first sequence of events as experienced by eight-year-old Ajay, about to leave his known world for a very different one. Writing from a young boy’s perspective allows Sharma to explore the sentimentality and melodrama surrounding this departure, without ever succumbing to the saccharine. And so with great ceremony and gravity and then regret, Ajay awards his toys to the poor neighbourhood boys queueing for the day’s milk delivery, and soon thereafter leaves for a new life.

In turn, Sharma conjures the seeming marvels of America for the new arrivals – Ajay’s father proudly introduces them to carpeted flooring and hot water on demand while Ajay directly discovers the just-as-remarkable delights of snowfall, 1980s television and lobby doors that open automatically. Meanwhile, true to Indo-American form, Ajay’s parents pressure his bright and assured older brother Birju to study and study and study. He gets into a prestigious high school, only then to suffer the catastrophic swimming pool injury.

“I was irritated,” Ajay tells us, right after his brother’s accident. “Birju had gotten into the Bronx High School of Science, and now he was going to get to be in a hospital. I was certain our mother would feel bad for him and give him a gift.” Once more, Sharma reveals more than his narrator intends by working within the limited circumference of a young person’s view of what is happening around him.

As the seriousness of Birju’s situation becomes clearer, and then all-consuming for his wrecked parents whose marriage simultaneously begins to fracture, Ajay goes through a series of reactions that attest to his own despair and confusion. With classmates, he veers between total silence and baroque exaggeration about his brother’s condition. At home, he teases his inert brother relentlessly, compulsively, even aggressively, pretending all is well so he doesn’t have to reckon with Birju’s grotesque physical state.

After the family moves to New Jersey, where his mother welcomes all manner of self-styled Indian healers to practise their arts on her infirm son (in vain), Ajay begins talking to a tree he passes on his way to school. He imagines that the tree is God and that the two of them can negotiate better terms for Birju or for Ajay, but not for both. The better Ajay does in his teenage life – good grades, a girlfriend who actually wants to kiss him back, a body that works – the more guilt, and frustration about this guilt, he feels. Eventually, he turns to his father for solace. “After a moment I said, ‘Daddy, I am so sad.’ ‘You’re sad?’ my father said angrily, ‘I want to hang myself every day.’ ”

While his resilient mother eventually becomes a figure of spiritual power and authority in their middle-class, Indo-American world, Ajay’s father becomes a flailing alcoholic prone to elaborate fits of self-pity and rage – the tyrant-baby crying from the novel’s first page onwards. Indeed, the most moving material in this novel concerns Ajay’s reactions to his father’s anger and sadness as it roils alongside his mother’s more placid sadness and endurance. Trying to help and love each of them, and to help and love his brother, and to understand his own part and position in all of it, Ajay turns to reading and writing as his best possible means of doing all of this. Family Life is the hard-earned and impressive result.

Randy Boyagoda is author of ‘Beggar’s Feast’ (Viking/Pintail)

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