Saturday, June 6, 2015

"Family Life" by Akhil Sharma

Family life is probably the most prominent subject of all great literature. We observe families from afar and think, "they look so happy, it looks so easy." Be assured, it is not. Families are terribly complex and reading about them is often heartbreaking, uplifting, terrifying or gratifying.

Family Life

You may feel all of these emotions and more if you take a look at Akhil Sharma's work. I had not heard of Mr. Sharma before, but thanks to a deep reader and friend in Florida, I finished this short but powerful book in just two days. Since then I have found scores of interviews, reviews, and biographical highlights about this Indian-American Princeton graduate. A lawyer and a teacher (Creative Writing at Rutgers), Sharma doesn't deny that he struggled for thirteen years - imagine - to perfect his second novel which is painfully autobiographical.

The story is of the Mishras who, like so many immigrant families, came to the United States hoping to improve their two sons' chances of achieving the American dream. It never ceases to amaze me how unselfish parents are when they arrive on these shores, strangers in a strange land, denying themselves so much for their kids, living in two rooms, working at jobs so far beneath their skill levels, trying to assimilate yet longing for the family and homes they left behind.

Eight-year-old Ajay, who narrates the Mishra's story, is a pure delight. He is smart, funny, wry, and honest, even when it's not to his advantage to be. He is the younger son, you see. His older brother Birju is the favored one. Birju swiftly adapts to his new life in New York, makes friends easily, excels at school, in fact does everything that his shy, bookish younger brother can't. Until the accident.

In an instant life will never be the same for the Mishras. Caring for Birju's devastating injuries will eventually bleed every ounce of energy and compassion from Ajay's parents, taking its toll from each in very different ways. At times we feel that Ajay is no more than collateral damage in the battle to keep Birju alive. And so he might have been if it wasn't for his resilient heart and his humorous sense of the absurd.

Because his parents minister to Birju 24/7 and he has no one else to talk to,  Ajay conducts hilarious interviews with God about Birju's illness. He makes deals and he breaks them, fearless as he castigates God for his bad behavior toward Birju. In school, where he's never fit in and suffers from bullying, he uses the story of Birju's injuries to attract friends, and he regales us readers with canny observations about the long procession of Indian "healers" who visit his house for months at a time, promising a miracle.

While there are funny moments in "Family Life," be warned this is a heartbreaking, gut wrenching novel made all the more so by knowing that it parallels Sharma's actuall life. It is also a paean to the endless capacity of a mother's love, to the bonds of family, and to the remarkable resilience of the human spirit.

 Mr. Sharma's publishers were apparently frantic, waiting years for the  long-promised second book after Pen/Hemingway winner "An Obedient Father." In an interview with "The Guardian" Sharma remarks that he would not release the manuscript until he felt that it was perfectly crafted and expressed precisely what he wanted to say. I can confidently tell you that he succeeded.