Book Review: Family Life by Akhil Sharma


Sharma’s condensed, semi-autobiographical novel that took more than 13 years per the author’s own admission, calls to attention a tenderness and heaviness that pervades across this tale of the immigrant Mishra family. Two sons – the elder beset with a tragedy that renders him an invalid indefinitely, and the younger sibling constantly living in the shadows of his brother brings to light the intense often times contradictory emotions that dog the lives of people having to deal with a family situation. The author mentions in one of his interviews that he wanted his readers to learn something from the book – to identify themselves in the book and to help them give the reassurance that when dealing with a family tragedy, the screws of the right behavior is distorted so much that behaving badly sometimes is really ok. Sharma’s story hinges on a real-life incident – that of his own family and yet the book is being marketed as fiction rather than a memoir. To make it more powerful he says. By avoiding sticking absolutely to the facts and actual conversations, this distilled novel trudges past the limitations of a non-fiction and makes it somehow more real. Reading it as a memoir, like the book Waves by Sonali Deranyigala may lead us to sympathize with the author more than engage with the story in full. 
Ajay, a partial second-generation immigrant in America descends into his life story. A story dealing with a tragedy that beset his family at an early stage – that of his brother succumbing to an acute brain damage through an accident in a public pool. The story that ensues is tender as much as it is funny. At equal abandon and through the lens of the young Ajay, the story deals with the attitude that the various member in his family adopted to deal with the tragedy. The mother becomes religious gradually, the father is torn between his emotions and cold logic but he cannot disregard the mother becoming disillusioned and resorting to alcohol to tide away his feeling of helplessness. There is something the matter with the narrator himself. The internality’s of these characters are descriptively sketched out and the mundane family anecdotes that are described so succinctly brings out the behavioral changes that one witnesses in this family coping up. The book is not much of a POV of the child as the complexity in thoughts, the setting of the scene and the vivid descriptions of the events make it more like a memoir or a grown-up looking back at one’s life from a vantage point much farther in the future and more dispassionately. And this is where as a memoir it would have been less of a force because the engine that drives it is a dispassionate assessment of the way things turned out to be in this family’s life. 
Categorizing this novel as an immigrant story – the likes of which we have seen in droves, would be futile. At best, this work, distilled though a torturous 14 years of work as per the author’s own admission, is more of a generic human story set in an immigrant household. The dynamics that affect a family in a new world is no doubt important to the way things turned out to be, but the author intends it to be an intensely personal and emotional story than an immigrant nostalgia. It captures the anxiety that many people felt at a time when immigration to the United States was still a novel idea but it is so much more than just that. 
The language is deceptively simple. I read it in one sitting and the pace of reading was effortless. Compact and bereft of external sensations to bring in dramatic elements, the book relies on conversations, imagery and introspection alone to sustain the events that unfold. 

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