The Book We're Talking About: 'Family Life' by Akhil Sharma

Family Life
by Akhil Sharma
W. W. Norton & Company, $23.95
Publishes April 7, 2014

The Book We're Talking About is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

What we think
Ernest Hemingway famously rewrote the final lines of A Farewell To Arms 39 times before settling on a suitable conclusion. When asked what exactly it was that stumped him, he replied, "Getting the words right."

Hemingway was being a little satirical, but this sentiment could explain why Akhil Sharma's second novel, though just over 200 pages long, took him 12 and a half years to write. He seems to have pained himself with "getting the words right," and he has succeeded in an extraordinary way.

Family Life is a heartbreaking novel-from-life about a boy whose brother becomes brain damaged after diving into a pool. What begins as a reflection on familial relationships evolves into a meditation on fate, as Ajay questions his own emotional responses to his brother’s tragic accident.

The book opens in Delhi, India in the late '70s ("children playing cricket in the middle of the street and rarely having to move out of the way to let cars by"), where eight-year-old Ajay and his older brother Birju are anxiously awaiting their move to America. Upon arriving at their new home in Queens, they’re hardly able to grasp what Ajay describes as “the wealth of America”--everything from the size of the libraries to the frequency of the television programming to the existence of grocery stores astonishes them.

Soon, Birju begins preparing for an exam that could ensure his entry into the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, and, in spite of the test’s Western bias (“These tests are for white people. How are you supposed to know what ‘pew’ means?”), performs well. His promising future only makes it more difficult for his family to cope with his accident, which Sharma describes brusquely (“Time passed. One afternoon, I watched my mother cut Birju’s fingernails. She looked scared as she did this.”) The starkness of Birju’s condition throws the traits of his family members into relief--Ajay’s father, prone to pessimism, finds comfort in drinking, whereas his more spiritual mother accepts visitors who believe their family is holy due to the suffering that they’ve endured.

Ajay’s methods for coping are complex. He begins praying to a God who, in his mind’s eye, bears a resemblance to Superman, demonstrating his reverence for American culture. For Ajay, God takes on the role of a cognitive-behavioral therapist, asking questions rather than providing answers, and, often, saying nothing at all.

He doesn’t tell classmates about his brother, for fear that they’ll respond insolently or, worse, act indifferently. When he does venture to tell a fellow student, he spirals into wild exaggerations about his brother’s former brilliance and valor, hoping they will elicit due empathy.

Sharma is subtly commenting on lying and art--how lies can convey a sort of emotional truth. Storytelling remains a therapeutic outlet for Ajay, especially as he grows older and stumbles upon a biography of Hemingway, whose work he begins to idolize. It's apparent that Sharma, too, takes after Hemingway, as each word of his brilliant novel feels deliberate, and each line is quietly moving.

What other reviewers think
Entertainment Weekly: "Sharma spent 13 years writing this slim novel, and the effort shows in each lucid sentence and heartbreaking detail."

The New York Times: "This book, deeply unnerving and gorgeously tender at its core, charts the young life of Ajay Mishra as he struggles to grow within a family shattered by loss and disoriented by a recent move from India to America."

Who wrote it?
Family Life is Sharma's second novel. His first, An Obedient Father, won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Whiting Writers' Award. His short stories have been published by The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Best American Short Stories, and have won numerous O. Henry Awards. He immigrated to the United States from India when he was eight.

Who will read it?
Those who enjoy direct language, and those interested in the immigrant experience in America.

Opening lines:
"My father has a glum nature. He retired three years ago, and he doesn't talk much. Left to himself, he can remain silent for days. When this happens, he begins brooding, he begins thinking strange thoughts."

Notable passage:
"In India, though, temples also smelled of flowers, of sweat from the crowds, of spoilage from the milk used to bathe the idols. Here, along with the smell of incense, there was only a faint odor of mildew. Because the temple smelled so simple, it seemed fake.

One night, snow drifted down from a night sky. I felt like I was in a book or a TV show."

Rating, out of ten:
10 - Sharma's spare, poetic prose unearths hope amid devastation.