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Apr 03

Book Review: Family Life by Akhil Sharma

What’s It About

At the age of eight Ajay Mishra moved, with his family, from India to America.  At first the transition to this new land of wealth and opportunity goes smoothly.  Unlike India where the family lived frugally, where they would save the cotton wool that came inside pill bottles, Ajay and his brother Birju enjoy this new world of toilet paper, fast food and comics.

But then tragedy strikes and Birju suffers a brain injury after an accident at a public swimming pool.  Suddenly, Ajay finds himself living in a house with a severely disabled brother, an alcoholic father and a mother still unable to come to terms with the reality that her eldest son is never getting better.  Struggling to carve out an identity in such an oppressive environment, the works of Ernest Hemingway may be Ajay’s only source of salvation.

Should I Read It?

Yes.

Family Life has quite a bit in common with All My Puny Sorrows.  Both books have a writer as the main point of view character.  Both books detail actual events that occurred in the author’s life (even if all the names have been changed).  Both books deal with caring for a family member suffering from an incurable illness.  And in spite of the subject matter, both novels aren’t afraid to be funny.

While Family Life was not my favourite novel nominated for the Folio Prize, I can fully understand why it won the award.  The bittersweet prose conveys a powerful and relevant story of the immigrant experience and the daily challenges faced by a family caring for someone with a severe disability.

Representative Paragraph

The American Dream…

My father, who had seemed pointless in India, had brought us to America, and made us rich. What he had done was undeniable. He now seemed mysterious, like he was a different person, someone who looked like my father but was not the same man. All the time now my father said things that revealed him as knowledgeable, as someone who could not just be ignored. My mother, Birju, and I had decided that a hot dog was made from dog meat. We had even discussed what part of a dog a hot dog must be made of. We had agreed that it had to be a tail. Then my father came home and heard us and started laughing.

Commentary

One of the many highlights of The Believer Magazine (subscribe if you know what’s good for you) is reading Daniel Handler’s regular column, What the Swedes Read.  A few years back he made the crazy decision to read one novel or book of poetry from each of the Nobel Laureates.  Handler – known more famously as Lemony Snicket – writes the column with much humour and wit but also a genuine passion for the written word in all its Nobel Laureate forms – even if he finds some of the books to be a bit dull.

Anyway, in the October 2013 edition of The Believer Magazine, Handler focuses on the work of V.S. Naipaul, specifically his novel, The Enigma of Arrival.  He characterises the book as a “common enough sort of literary creature: the book that’s obviously very, very true, with the sort of small shaping present in all memoirs that is occasionally cause for so much controversy that publishers tack on “a novel” to silence those who are whining.”

While it’s a description that could easily apply to five of the finalists for the Folio Prize, I see Family Life as heading that list.  Akhil Sharma has been upfront that the novel is, for the most part, a truthful retelling of his childhood and early teenage years in America.  Not surprisingly then, since the publication of the book Sharma has been repeatedly asked: why not just write a memoir?  His response has been consistent (I’ve cut and pasted the one he gave to the Thought Fox):

I just feel that you can be so much more truthful in fiction than in memoir. For me, when I think about writing non-fiction I feel as if I owe an obligation to an objective reality that is separate to just telling a good story. So I could not include dialogue for example in a memoir because I don’t remember exactly what people have said. I could not collapse time, because if I collapsed time I would be taking things out of context.

I could be cynical and say that not having a photographic memory hasn’t stopped other writers from including dialogue in their memoirs.  I could take that cynicism a step further and say that narrative nonfiction, including the memoir and autobiography, is just fiction with an index and bibliography.  In anycase, I appreciate Sharma’s honesty here.  He didn’t want be forced into a position where he would be fudging the truth for the sake of a more interesting story.

But Sharma also says that he can be more truthful in fiction than in memoir.  It’s not explicit, but I think he means emotional, rather than historical, truth.  And Family Life is most certainly an emotional honest look at the immigrant experience and caring for a loved one who is severely disabled.  One example of this emotional truth – that according to Sharma is also based in fact – is Ajay’s propensity to lie about his brother’s achievements before his accident.  These lies are so obvious, so blatant that the few friends Ajay has turn away from him.  And as a reader you can’t help but perceive Ajay as arrogant and annoying, making a mockery of his brother’s disability.

And then Ajay explains why he lies —

We had received so little money in the settlement, which meant that Birju was an ordinary boy, lying seemed the only way to explain that what had happened to him was awful, was the worst thing in the world. Birju, I said, had rescued a woman trapped in a burning car. Birju had had a great talent for music and a photographic memory… I concocted an ideal brother. I took the fact that Birju had told our parents that I was being bullied and turned this into him being a karate expert who had protected me by beating up various boys. These fantasies felt real. They excited me. They made me love Birju and when I was in his room kiss his hands and cheeks.

— and the truth Ajay / Sharma describes hits you in the stomach.  Lying about his brother not only was a way of giving Birju’s life meaning but it allowed Ajay to bond with his brother, even if the relationship was one way only.

The novel is jammed pack with these honest moments of reflection.  Another favourite involves his father’s alcoholism and linking this to Hemingway’s own drinking problems:

Hemingway had been an alcoholic and his characters often drank too much. Their drinking appeared false, though, because there were no consequences. It was like how cartoon characters fall off cliffs without being injured. Spotting this lie in Hemingway made me feel superior to him, and this bit of superiority led me to feel anger and contempt and being angry was pleasurable.

And, of course, in a novel about the immigrant experience, Ajay considers the difficulties assimilating into American culture.

At home we didn’t eat the food that white kids ate. At home our mothers and sometimes our fathers dressed in odd clothes. Our holidays were not the same as white people’s. Our parents worshipped gods who rode on mice. To attack someone based on his or her family brought up so much of our own shame that we didn’t have the heart to be mean.

This passage particularly resonated with me.  Feeling uncomfortable with the rituals I follow – especially when I’m questioned about them – is something I still struggle with.

The Mishra’s may be fictional, and Sharma may have fiddled with the timelines of his own childhood and teenage years, but like any good novel, Family Life regularly makes observations that have an emotional truth that goes beyond whether the moment described actually happened.

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  1. Who Should Have Won This Year’s Folio Prize » The Hysterical Hamster

    […] Family Life by Akhil Sharma (Faber) […]

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