Thirteen years in the making, FAMILY LIFE, the slender new novel by Akhil Sharma, author of AN OBEDIENT FATHER, is a potent, impressive portrait of an immigrant family’s assimilation into their new life in America, and their struggles in coping with the aftermath of a sudden and horrible accident. Like other great novels from the tradition of the “immigrant experience,” it’s also a devastating look at prejudice, the clashing of cultures, and the ringing hollowness of the American Dream.
The story proper begins in Delhi, India. Mr. Mishra, a gloomy accountant, dreams of moving his family --- his wife and two young sons, Birju, and Ajay, the book’s narrator --- to an idealized America after the 1965 loosening of U.S. immigration laws. However, it isn’t until the mid-1970s nightmare of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency,” during which she “suspended the constitution and put thousands of people in jail,” that Ajay’s father is finally compelled to apply for a visa. Though nobody else in his family shares his enthusiasm, he leaves and lands in Queens, where he sets himself up as a clerk at a government agency. He sends for his family a year later. But before they leave, Sharma shifts the focus back to the remaining family members’ last days in Delhi, capturing the simplicities of the Mishras’ meager existence, the intricacies of class relations in Indian culture, and a growing realization in Ajay of what they’re all on the brink of losing in fluid, vivid, emotionally resonant prose --- a trait Sharma maintains throughout the book.
"Sharma packs enough emotion, incident and stellar prose into its fine frame for several novels. And while the first half holds most of the book’s heat and momentum, what’s generated by that intensity is enough to sustain the second half through its painful, excruciating unraveling to its quiet yet unsettled ending."
When they do arrive, Sharma movingly and humorously describes the astonishment the newcomers feel on landing in a place of such unimaginable largesse: wall-to-wall carpeting, hot water from a tap, almost non-stop television. Even the endless traffic lights impress. By comparison, as Ajay remarks on the lone traffic light in his old hometown, “People were so unused to being directed by a light that a traffic guard… stood underneath, repeating its directions with his hands.”
Problems inevitably arise. While the gifted, socially adept Birju is primed and mercilessly coached by his aspiring parents for acceptance to the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, Ajay is being bullied at their predominantly white school, finding that most of the students look surprisingly the same to him, and that the school itself feels like an enormous, monotonous maze, one in which he frequently gets lost. Ajay eventually finds a kind of equilibrium, but when Birju gets accepted at Bronx Science, he only feels that much more alienated and alone.
Though this novel is, by Sharma’s admission, largely autobiographical, it’s to his credit that he never milks a reader’s sympathy. Ajay’s youthful anguish feels genuine, but his --- and Sharma’s --- even-keeled compassion for others keeps that pain in perspective. And when Birju’s life is effectively cut short in an accident at a swimming pool, Sharma’s grip on that compassion not only doesn’t falter, it becomes in many ways the primary focus of the book. When Birju’s condition comes to dominate life at home, Birju’s parents, strapped for cash and falling apart emotionally, find themselves struggling to hold things together. And Ajay, already feeling overshadowed by Birju, is soon tormented by feelings of anger toward him, as well as unexpected, overwhelming feelings of love.
At a mere 224 pages, FAMILY LIFE is a miracle of compression. Sharma packs enough emotion, incident and stellar prose into its fine frame for several novels. And while the first half holds most of the book’s heat and momentum, what’s generated by that intensity is enough to sustain the second half through its painful, excruciating unraveling to its quiet yet unsettled ending. FAMILY LIFE makes it clear that Sharma is a dazzling and gifted writer. One hopes it won’t be another 13 years before his next book.
Reviewed by Damian Van Denburgh on April 10, 2014
- Publication Date: February 2, 2015
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 240 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
- ISBN-10: 0393350606
- ISBN-13: 9780393350609