Sunday, March 1, 2015

"Family Life," by Akhil Sharma

Akhil Sharma’s novel, “Family Life” (Norton, 2014), is both heartbreaking and life-affirming. I know that sounds corny and trite, but it does in fact encapsulate the feelings the novel engenders. It is a short novel that seems to be several different novels in one: an illness narrative, a family story, an immigrant experience, and – perhaps most of all – a classic-but-very-individual bildungsroman. The narrator and main character, Ajay, and his family are Indians who move to the United States in 1978, when Ajay is eight years old. The dramatic center of the story is the diving accident and ensuing brain damage that befalls Ajay’s older brother, Birju, a brilliant student who had just been accepted into a prestigious high school in New York City. Birju is ever after bedbound, blind, and does not speak or understand others' speaking; he needs round-the-clock care in every aspect of his life. After that, the family’s life revolves around taking care of Birju, first in the hospital and nursing home, and then -- for the rest of the years covered in the novel and into the future -- at home. This accident is, obviously, devastating, and changes the family’s life forever. Ajay and his father and mother all take part in Birju's care, with help from nursing assistants. Ajay’s father starts drinking far too much, and his mother becomes angry much of the time. The family is alternately supported by the Indian community and shunned; they are supported when the accident happens, shunned when the alcoholism is discovered. They are also visited at various times as a cautionary story for families' children, as a model of family love, and -- since Ajay is an excellent student -- as inspiration or motivation to other children. Much of the story revolves around which parts of the family’s lives are public and which are private, even secret, and on what happens when secrets are exposed. Meanwhile, the novel is, as I mentioned, a coming-of-age story; throughout everything that happens to the family, Ajay is going to school, doing well academically, being bullied at times, experiencing racism, sitting at the “Indian table” in the cafeteria at lunch time, having a sweet relationship with his girlfriend Minakshi, and, eventually, going to an Ivy League college and having a successful career. Throughout, he is both loyal to his brother and family and sometimes resentful of how Birju’s need for constant care, and his total unresponsiveness, take over the family's time and attention. Then he feels guilty about his feelings. But Ajay is a good son, almost always. The question is whether he will allow himself to be happy despite the central event of his and his family’s life, the event that shadows and shapes everything else. The ending of the novel is ambiguous on this point. I hope this description of the novel is not too depressing and does not discourage readers. As I said earlier, the book is also life-affirming, in that it shows the strength of the family despite everything, and it shows how a child can grow and thrive despite everything (albeit with a shadow that will always be present to some extent). There is even some gentle humor regarding Ajay’s adolescent years, and regarding the Indian community. Now I am going to add something that I usually don't write about here: the fact that this novel is an autobiographical one. Sharma has spoken openly about this in published interviews, and dedicates his book to his wife, his parents and "my poor brother Anup Sharma." He says in the acknowledgements and elsewhere that it took him 12 years to write this novel; one can only imagine how hard it must have been to turn this tragic yet not-only-tragic story into fiction. His brother died three years ago, 30 years after his accident.
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