Halfway through the twelve years it took Akhil Sharma to write Family Life, his editor, perfectly happy with the then-current draft, urged him to quit rewriting. The temptation must have been mighty; the long silence after Sharma’s promising debut, An Obedient Father, caused his name to be all but forgotten in literary circles, and the pressure to publish again was presumably immense. But the manuscript was not yet “doing what I wanted it to do,” says Sharma. “That book was dense with unhappiness, whereas I wanted a book that contained all the unhappiness but was also full of life.”
What sort of subject matter would require so many years of fine-tuning to achieve a balance between unhappiness and life? To give you an idea, here’s the basic arc of the story: Ajay Mishra is eight years old when his family moves from India to the USA. Ajay’s older brother Birju shows great academic promise, until a swimming accident leaves him permanently brain-damaged. There’s no hope of recovery or even improvement. Birju can no longer see, speak, feed himself, or bathe himself. All he can do is lie in a hospital bed, immobile, speechless, for the rest of his life.
It’s a fate almost too horrible to contemplate, one of the worst things that could possibly happen to any family. When you first read about it, you—like Ajay and his parents—try to figure out some way for it not to be true. It’s fiction, you think. The author could make him miraculously wake up! When Ajay prays to God to “get rid of the three minutes when Birju was at the bottom of the pool,” you think, Yes, great idea! Let’s do that!
But as you keep reading, you—like Ajay and his parents—grow to accept Birju’s condition as a given. It becomes impossible not to accept something when you think of nothing else, and the Mishras can think of nothing else. Every single event and emotion is a tiny grain of salt in the ocean of Birju’s illness.
When Ajay is happy, he remembers Birju and feels guilty. When he’s sad, he remembers Birju and feels guilty. When his parents fight, whether or not they’re fighting about Birju, they’re fighting about Birju. And of course their interactions with everyone else in the world—from medical staff to Ajay’s American classmates to the Indian immigrant community—can’t help but focus on Birju, precluding any hope of normal relationships. How could you ever hope to make a genuine connection with a peer if he’s only over at your house because his mom wants him to see you doing physical therapy exercises on your brother while she hisses, “This is love, animal…. And you won’t do one thing for me”?
You’d think if any subject matter would lend itself to relentlessly difficult reading, it would be this—and in fact, this is the kind of book that usually gives me ripples of claustrophobia. Unlike most contemporary American novels, it never switches perspective or timeline, but rather continues in strict first-person from the earliest events in the plot right on through to the latest. At 218 pages of large-ish type, it reads almost like an extended short story rather than a novel. Books like this often give me the sensation of groping around in the dark for a light switch I can’t find: there’s just the one thing—a wall—and there’s no variation, and you can’t touch anything else because you can’t see anything else without the lights.
But Family Life is exquisite and absorbing. Instead of trapping you in one narrow train of thought, Sharma’s restrained style lets you into the entirety of Ajay’s world, doling out seizures and schoolwork, feeding tubes and kitchen tables with equal calmness. Yes, there is great pain, but it can’t all be pain. There are quiet, ordinary moments, too, and even, once in a while, happy ones.
It’s this ability to portray, well, family life that really proves the ferocity of Sharma’s skill. Here’s one of many illustrative passages, this one from a point in the plot where the family has just bought a new house so Birju can live at home instead of in a nursing facility:
We had given Birju sponge baths before but never a bath in a tub. “Hello, fatty,” I called out. I smiled. I walked boldly. I was nervous. The room was bright, and my mother was there, too, near the bed, spreading a towel over the back and seat of the wheelchair.
My mother looked over her shoulder at me. “Birju, say, ‘I’m your older brother. Speak with respect.’” She was smiling. She moved quickly, and her glass bracelets jingled as she smoothed the towel. Because I was pretending to be cheerful, I assumed she was acting, too.
Questions you might normally ask yourself about a household—Is this a happy family? Is this an abusive family?—drop away. There’s no use trying to judge or analyze the Mishras’ situation. You have to just experience it the way Sharma presents it: with unsparing, unsentimental compassion.
That balance would be hard to strike for anyone, of course, but why did it take such an obviously talented writer twelve whole years? Probably because, as it turns out, the novel is highly autobiographical. Sharma grew up in the cities where the book takes place, read the books the protagonist reads, and had an older brother whose brain was damaged, forever changing the course of his family’s existence.
In that light, it makes sense that it was more important to Sharma to perfect the book than to make canny moves in the publishing game. Family Life should cement his literary reputation, and even if it doesn’t, he’s accomplished something much bigger. He bared this fictionalized version of his family to the rest of the world, and he did it flawlessly: with all the unhappiness, and all the life.
– Lauren O’Neal is a freelance writer and editor working toward an MFA in creative writing in San Francisco. She has written for publications like Slate, the New Inquiry, and theRumpus, where she was formerly the assistant editor, and is currently on the editorial team at brand-new lit-mag Midnight Breakfast. You can follow her on Twitter at @laureneoneal.