“While a part of me was glad I wasn’t like my brother, no part of me wished to be more fortunate than my mother. To be luckier than her was to be different from her, it was to be apart from her, it was to have a life that would take me away from her.
At school, the guilt and sadness were like wearing clothes still damp from the wash. Whenever I moved, I felt as though I were touching something icy. In history class, I sat in the first desk of the fourth row. I learned that Andrew Jackson was called ‘Old Hickory.’ My knowing this meant that I had gained something, that I was being made rich while my mother and brother remained poor.”
–An excerpt from Family Life by Akhil Sharma
For eight-year-old Ajay Mishra, America brims with the extraordinary opportunities his family could never attain in Delhi, India. So when his mother and older brother, Birju, join their father to live in New York, Ajay revels in the power of their good fortune. However, months after their arrival, a swimming accident leaves Birju with severe brain damage. His fall from promising prodigy to fully-dependant charge leaves the family transformed and struggling to cope.
The reversal of luck throws Ajay’s life into disarray. As his mother devotes herself to constant caregiving and his father to alcohol, Ajay grows up battling a confused sense of guilt and family duty. Set in this sorrowful turmoil, Family Life, the 2014 autobiographical novel by Indian-American author Akhil Sharma unfolds layers of cultural (mis)understandings and where to find a foothold when all feels lost.
Our protagonist, Ajay, is not a likeable character. He is extremely proud and self-centred, and yet, you forgive him. After Birju’s accident, his survival becomes the focal point of the family and Ajay is left to legitimize the circumstances on his own.
He flounders for rationale and, without guidance, he grows into the son his brother could never be. Constantly churning out various reasonings for his family’s circumstances, Ajay’s self-absorbed perspective goes unchecked and his naive arrogance blooms.
The derailment of how one life lost becomes the collapse of the whole family is the real tragedy of this story. It’s why the reader simultaneously rejects and pities Ajay, we want him to succeed — can he? What the story brilliantly accomplishes is bringing the reader into a family’s life that is not their own.
While we may understand the peculiar nuances of our own familial expectations, they’re often seemingly impossible to explain to anyone outside our inner circle. In Family Life, author Akhil Sharma brings these inherited expectations to sharp attention. Amidst the intercultural tensions of being newcomers, the family dynamic itself is palpable. Even while the characters and their way of life feel unfamiliar, you absorb empathy for them from the pages.
Sharma is conservative with his explanations of why the plot moves forward as it does, or how to expect the characters to react the way they do. By lightly passing over details — as Sharma suggests Hemingway does — the exoticism of an otherwise foreign experience is released.
As the reader fills the space with their own personal interpretations, it creates a sense of closeness with the characters and more common ground with otherwise unfamiliar cultural expectations.
Composed with controlled melancholy, expect to feel your way through this book.