Family Life

By Akhil Sharma

(Norton, $23.95, 224 pages)

Who is this author?

Akhil Sharma is the author of “An Obedient Father,” which won a 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 now lives in New York City. In the late 1970s, his father immigrated to the United States, and in 1979, when he was eight years old, Sharma and his mother and 12-year-old brother followed, eventually settling in Edison, New Jersey, where a large Indian community was established. Sharma earned his B.A. in public policy, not in literature, at Princeton University and won a Stegner Fellowship to the writing program at Stanford University, where he won several O. Henry Prizes. After failing to become a screenwriter, he went to Harvard Law School, and then became a successful banker before deciding to return to writing. His short story “Cosmopolitan” was anthologized in “The Best American Short Stories 1998,” and was made into an 2003 movie.  

What is this book about?

It is about immigration and making a new life, but it is also an autobiographical and devastating tale about how a single careless moment leads to a tragedy that undoes the close and ambitious Mishra family, who have left Delhi for life in America. Based on Sharma’s real life, the story tells what happens when his teenage brother, on whom the family’s hopes are pinned, has an accident in a swimming pool that leaves him brain-dead and the family reeling to cope. They care for poor, ruined Birju for years, but the father becomes an alcoholic, the mother settles for menial work, there are difficulties with a lawsuit and Ajay (the Sharma character) is torn between love for his brother and resentment of the circumstances that make him the family golden boy by default.

The Bangalore Mirror asked Sharma: “How cathartic has it been to write Family Life?,” which took him about 13 years to complete. His brother died about a year before it was published.

He replied: “Writing the book changed me. There was something about thinking about my family’s suffering, about how we had all behaved, sometimes well and sometimes not so well, that lead me to feel compassion. I think writing the book educated me about how much acceptance and forgiveness we need to have.”

Sharma told American Bazaar that  “the tragedy of his brother in America taught him to comprehend at an early age the permanent predicament of his wasted brother, who was supposed to be the beacon of success; to understand the helplessness of his once-ambitious father’s dive into alcoholism. To gauge the pain of his loving mother’s fight for sanity, her struggles to present a bold face, calm demeanor in society. . . .  Sharma creates a make-believe optimistic world for himself to ward off being dragged into failure, which would have been an easy option as there were no expectations of him from his family.”

Why you’ll like it:

Whether its author decided to tell it as fiction or as nonfiction, this is a gripping story. All families suffer some kind of pain: the Sharmas were given more than their share. The stress of living through the practical nightmare of caring for a severely damaged loved one while also dealing with the personal failings and problems of each bereaved family member is movingly, yet sparingly, told, which makes the story all the more powerful. This is emotional dynamite, handled gingerly, and a personal tale made universal by the author’s deft writing skills. There is just enough humor interspersed with the essential sadness of this story to make it palatable, even as you feel for this beleaguered, once hopeful, family.

What others are saying:

This is Sharma’s second novel after the PEN/Hemingway Award-winning “An Obedient Father” (2000). In it, there is none of the score settling of adult memoirists recalling bad parenting. He sees everything, including the actions of his protagonist, with what’s been called the “cold, loving eye” of the novelist. No one is spared by his gaze, and yet one comes to understand and feel sympathy for each of these characters. It is the story of the meeting between the adult man and the child he was. With his subtly drawn point of view — recreating the child’s perceptions but with the controlling sensibility of an adult intelligence — Sharma gives us a fully imagined world, both hard and consoling.” says the Boston Globe.

The New York Times Book Review says: “…deeply unnerving and gorgeously tender at its core…Family Life is devastating as it reveals how love becomes warped and jagged and even seemingly vanishes in the midst of huge grief. But it also gives us beautiful, heart-stopping scenes where love in the Mishra family finds air and ease…I found Family Life riveting in its portrayal of an immigrant community’s response to loss…But where Family Life really blazes is in its handling of Mrs. Mishra’s grief. Sharma is compassionate but unflinching as he tells of this mother’s persistent and desperate efforts to cope over the years.”

Says Publishers Weekly’s starred review:  “The immigrant experience has been documented in American literature since those first hardy souls landed at Plymouth, and as the immigrants keep coming, so too do their stories. Sharma (An Obedient Father), who acknowledges the autobiographical elements in his new novel, tells a simple but layered tale of assimilation and adaptation. The Mishras come to America in the late-1970s, the father first, in the wake of new U.S. immigration laws and the Indian Emergency, when the narrator, Ajay, is eight, and his brother Birju is 12. There are lovely scenes of their life in Delhi before they leave, the mother making wicks from the cotton in pill bottles, the parade of neighbors when their plane tickets to America arrive. Sharma captures the experience for Ajay of being transported to a different country: the thrill of limitless hot water flowing from a tap; the trauma of bullies at school; the magic of snow falling; watching Birju, the favored son, studying hours each day and spending entire weekends preparing for the entrance exam at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. Then a terrible tragedy irreparably alters the family and their fortunes. Sharma skillfully uses this as another window into the Indian way of accepting and dealing with life. A loving portrait, both painful and honest.

Kirkus Reviews says: “In Sharma’s world, as in Leo Tolstoy’s, unhappy families continue to be unhappy in different ways. In 1978, narrator Ajay’s father emigrates from Delhi to New York to take a job as a clerk in a government agency, and a year later, his family joins him. Ajay’s mother had been an economics teacher in India and must now adjust to lower career aspirations, while Ajay’s older brother Birju experiences some academic success in middle school and qualifies to attend the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. Tragically, just before Birju is about to begin at his new high school, he has an accident—he hits his head in a pool and stays unconscious underwater for three minutes, leading to severe brain damage that lasts throughout his life. This accident changes the entire dynamic for the Mishra family. First, they have to determine how to take care of Birju, and they eventually decide to buy a new home and have live-in help, a situation made more feasible when the family gets a $1 million insurance settlement. But the father becomes an alcoholic, in part owing to the new stresses brought about by Birju’s medical needs, and the mother winds up taking a job in the garment industry for minor wages. Meanwhile, Ajay begins to feel some pressure to be the academic star, something he succeeds in by graduating first in his high school class—he eventually attends Princeton, studies economics and becomes an investment banker. Along the way, he becomes enamored with Ernest Hemingway and begins to write short stories about his family life in the reportorial and flat style of the author he so admires—a style Sharma also adheres to in the writing of his novel. A moving story of displacement and of the inevitable adjustments one must make when life circumstances change. “

When is it available?

This moving novel is on the shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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