Talking about his new novel, “Family Life,” Akhil Sharma has said, “Almost everything in [it] is true.” When asked why he didn’t write a memoir, he said, “For me, a memoir is nonfiction and nonfiction has to be absolutely true.” No composite characters, no hazily remembered dialogue presented as fact, no collapsing of time. This devastating, beautiful novel, then, is at once an act of memory and imagination.
The story covers several years in the lives of the Mishra family, who move to the United States from Delhi during the first wave of Indian immigration in the 1970s. Everything in their new world seems miraculous — elevators, hot water flowing from a tap, a wall-to-wall carpet in their new apartment. The narrator, Ajay, the younger of two brothers, is 8 when the story begins, and Sharma relates the saga from his viewpoint, adapting a child’s sharp perception and simple language. When he presses a button in an elevator, he says, “I felt powerful that it had to obey me.”
Despite struggles, the Mishras sustain themselves as new members of the American middle class. Father Rajinder is a clerk in a government agency. Mother Shuba had to leave her job as a high-school economics teacher in India but is content as a garment factory worker. And the older son, Birju, after much hard work and anxiety, wins acceptance to the Bronx High School of Science.
Then, disaster. Birju is injured in a diving accident at a neighborhood swimming pool that leaves him severely brain damaged, able to breathe on his own, but blind, mute, and otherwise incapacitated.
This tragedy and the family’s response to it are harrowing and form the heart of the novel. The Mishras sit in vigil at Birju’s hospital bedside. Eventually they care for him at home with the help of a nurse’s aide. Over the course of months, then years, they grapple with, among other things, health insurance and a lawsuit that yields little reward. The parents bicker. Rajinder descends into alcoholism. Shuba accedes to a succession of miracle workers.
All of this would be difficult enough to read if presented as reportage, but filtered through the sensibility of young Ajay and transformed by Sharma, it is especially moving. Ajay’s sadness, guilt, and resentment bring the family’s struggles into high relief. Ajay bargains with God for Birju’s recovery, immerses himself in superhero comic books, and begins to alienate his school friends by taunting them with graphic descriptions of Birju’s condition and by telling more and more extravagant lies.
Ajay is acting out, trying to find an outlet for his feelings as well as his place in the world now that it’s been turned upside down. Seeing his brother’s physical deterioration, he taunts him with childish epithets. He concludes: “Pretending to be younger than I was, too young to notice Birju’s gruesomeness, always seemed the proper way to behave.”
Ajay sympathizes when his father, drunk, complains that because of racism Birju was not given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Ajay knows this isn’t true but is comforted by his father’s outburst. “[B]ecause then Birju’s accident was no longer purely accidental, unconnected to the larger world, lacking all meaning. Also, there was something satisfying about being angry.”
Ajay’s life is one of reading signs for meaning — as an immigrant in a new country, as a child among distracted adults. This is an immigrant’s story, but it is also a coming-of-age story, rendered with narrative delicacy as well as a measure of dark comedy. Early on, before his brother’s accident, Ajay, bullied in the schoolyard, thinks, “There has been a mistake. I am not the sort of boy who is pushed around. I am good at cricket. I am good at marbles.”
The superhero stories Ajay makes up, the lies he tells his friends, his conversations with God, even the magical luxuries of America — all have a cumulative effect. At times Ajay’s story takes on the cast of an evil fairy tale, or a dream from which one can’t awake.
This is Sharma’s second novel after the PEN/Hemingway Award-winning “An Obedient Father” (2000). In it, there is none of the score settling of adult memoirists recalling bad parenting. He sees everything, including the actions of his protagonist, with what’s been called the “cold, loving eye” of the novelist. No one is spared by his gaze, and yet one comes to understand and feel sympathy for each of these characters. It is the story of the meeting between the adult man and the child he was. With his subtly drawn point of view — recreating the child’s perceptions but with the controlling sensibility of an adult intelligence — Sharma gives us a fully imagined world, both hard and consoling.