By Akhil Sharma
(W.W. Norton & Co)
Akhil Sharma’s new novel, “Family Life,” should come with a warning sticker: Heartbreak ahead. This slender book, hardly more than 200 pages, follows 8-year-old Ajay Mishra and his family from India to Queens, where Ajay’s older brother, Birju, fulfills his parents’ immigrant hopes by gaining acceptance to the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. Then, their world is shattered when a swimming pool accident leaves Birju severely brain-damaged ― puffing spit, unable to speak and completely dependent on others to feed and bathe him.
“Family Life” is narrated by Ajay, who witnesses these events from a child’s perceptive yet bewildered point of view. (Ajay’s first reaction to the accident is envy: “I was irritated. Birju had gotten into the Bronx High School of Science, and now he was going to get to be in a hospital.”) Like Sharma’s 2000 novel, “An Obedient Father” ― about an Indian civil servant who has sexually abused his daughter ― “Family Life” tackles a difficult subject, here with unblinking attention to odd detail and flashes of dark humor.
Every family responds to tragedy in its own ways. Mr. Mishra ― whom Ajay believed “had been assigned to us by the government ... because he appeared to serve no purpose” ― begins to drink heavily. Mrs. Mishra insists on telling people that her son is in a coma ― implying he might recover ― and invites a string of “miracle workers” to chant over Birju and lecture on Hindu scripture. Ajay himself prays to Superman (“It seemed to me we should flatter anyone who could help”) and develops a heightened sense that the Mishras are set apart (“My family, because it was suffering so intensely, was living a life that was more real than these people’s, whose lives were silly like a TV show”). Members of the local Indian community come to the Mishras seeking blessings, touching Birju’s “pale, swollen, inward-turned feet, as if the sacrifices being made for him had turned him into an idol.”
Birju’s condition comes to be the defining fact of Ajay’s childhood ― bathing his brother is a chore like any other, and he spends evenings playing cards with his mother across Birju’s sickbed. Frequently lost in a book, Ajay eventually decides he wants to be a writer, emulating Ernest Hemingway. “As I kept reading Hemingway, who seemed to so value suffering in silence, I began to see my family’s pain as belonging in a story.”
“Family Life” ― which the author has said is largely autobiographical ― is written in undecorated, almost flattened prose, but the story lingers, hauntingly, in the mind ― a minimalist coming-of-age novel that carefully traces the contours of a scar that will never fully heal. (MCT)