The loss of innocence: Akhil Sharma’s tragic second novel puts him back at the top
Akhil Sharma’s first work appeared in the late 1990s in the form of prize-winning short stories, then, in 2001, his debut novel An Obedient Father won the PEN/Hemingway Award. Readers eagerly anticipated a second, but bar the occasional short story – enough to see his name included on the 2007 Granta best of young American writers list – Sharma seemingly slipped beneath the literary radar.
He was, we now discover, working all the while on what’s been the most difficult of difficult second novels – Family Life, a thinly veiled novelisation of his own family’s move to America from India in the late 1970s and the terrible tragedy that befell them while they were still finding their feet.
The novel is narrated by Sharma’s fictional alter ego, Ajay Mishra, only eight years old when he, his older brother Birju and their parents leave Delhi for New York.
Mr Mishra, a clearly more complicated man than the enigma Ajay thought had merely “been assigned to us by the government”, had wanted to emigrate to the West ever since his early 20s: “Often when he walked down a street, he would feel that the buildings he passed were indifferent to him, that he mattered so little to them that he might as well not have been born. Because he attributed this feeling to his circumstances and not to the fact that he was the sort of person who sensed buildings having opinions of him, he believed that if he were somewhere else, especially somewhere where he earned in dollars and so was rich, he would be a different person and not feel the way he did.”
So too Ajay dreams of the spoils of an American life – jet packs and chewing gum are top of his list. The reality, of course, is rather different. Seeing his first snowfall is amazing, and television and the library are great (though Ajay fears his father is becoming too American: he bribes his sons with the promise of 50 cents for every book they read rather than just threatening to beat them if they don’t), but school is “like a giant game of Snakes and Ladders”, the building an unfathomable maze full of white people he struggles to tell apart. Birju, however, assimilates into his new life seamlessly – he earns a place at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science and has lots of friends and, more significantly, a girlfriend. “I could see that Birju would be leaving our family,” Ajay surmises, recognising that his brother is growing up, “that one day he would have a life that had nothing to do with us.” The tragedy is that this never comes to pass. The summer before he starts high school Birju hits his head on the bottom of a swimming pool. Lying unconscious underwater, his lungs flooding with water for a full three minutes, he suffers irreparable brain damage.
In that three minutes everything changes, the entire family’s lives thereafter defined by continually rejected insurance claims, the 24-hour care Birju now needs and the resultant near soul-destroying misery that has them turn on each other.
“I’m sad,” Ajay tells his father just after the second anniversary of his brother’s accident. “You’re sad,” his father angrily retaliates, “I want to hang myself every day.” Instead, he descends into alcoholism, a desperate attempt to drown himself.
Years pass and Ajay is top of his class, but it’s no compensation for Birju’s lost potential. “If Birju were all right,” his mother screams at him in a moment of despair, “I would tell you to get out. I’d tell you to leave right now. Go with your stupid grades and die.”
Family Life is a masterly rendering of the Indian immigrant experience, an experience magnified tenfold by the disaster that has to be shouldered day in day out by the members of the family it has ripped apart. Sharma’s stark, stripped-down prose is as raw and biting as the grief he depicts – Ajay’s emotional reality is given precedence over a traditional sensory-heavy rendering of the atmosphere, but rather than detract from the novel’s power, this amplifies it.
But even at its bleakest, it’s also a story about the depths of human love and perseverance, a tour de force that re-establishes Sharma’s position as one of our best and most innovative contemporary writers.
Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.
Published: May 1, 2014 04:00 AM