This book, deeply unnerving and gorgeously tender at its core, charts the young life of Ajay Mishra as he struggles to grow within a family shattered by loss and disoriented by a recent move from India to America … Family Life is devastating as it reveals how love becomes warped and jagged and even seemingly vanishes in the midst of huge grief. But it also gives us beautiful, heart-stopping scenes where love in the Mishra family finds air and ease … I found Family Life riveting in its portrayal of an immigrant community’s response to loss. The Mishras are surrounded by other Indian families, all striving for success in America. And with brilliant authenticity Sharma shows the distinct, and sometimes absurd, manner in which many of them behave around the wounded Mishras.
Akhil Sharma has suffered for your pleasure, and the results are magnificent. He suffered in his youth, as his novel takes off from his family history, and he suffered anew as he wrestled mightily, in heroic scale, with that essential writer’s dilemma: trying to get the words right. And trying. And trying. Eventually, he pulled it off … Beyond the sadness, the novel contains a deep, nourishing reservoir of grim humor, thanks to Ajay’s deadpan and dead-eyed perceptions. He’s an invariably unnerving narrator, whether decoding the true meaning of It’s a Wonderful Life or trying to arouse sympathy in his bored classmates by devising cringe-worthy stories of Birju’s pre-accident powers. There are plenty of cross-cultural miscommunications in Family Life, but gallows humor needs no translation.
For a while, reading Family Life is a little bit like drowning. I felt swallowed up by the oppressive despair of the Mishras. And all the excitement of American television with ‘programming from morning till night’ or a library where you could check out as many books as you wanted, is now replaced by descriptions of seizures and suffering … [Sharma] takes a simple, emotionally difficult story and makes the reader brave the ongoing pain and become fully absorbed. He does this through Ajay's very specific, adolescent and authentic voice … Though Birju and his parents can never escape their situation, Ajay can. And when he eventually grows up and leaves his parents and brother, he gets a chance to have his own life, and also to provide for his brother in a way his parents never could.
Sharma conjures the seeming marvels of America for the new arrivals – Ajay’s father proudly introduces them to carpeted flooring and hot water on demand while Ajay directly discovers the just-as-remarkable delights of snowfall, 1980s television and lobby doors that open automatically. Meanwhile, true to Indo-American form, Ajay’s parents pressure his bright and assured older brother Birju to study and study and study. He gets into a prestigious high school, only then to suffer the catastrophic swimming pool injury ... The most moving material in this novel concerns Ajay’s reactions to his father’s anger and sadness as it roils alongside his mother’s more placid sadness and endurance. Trying to help and love each of them, and to help and love his brother, and to understand his own part and position in all of it, Ajay turns to reading and writing as his best possible means of doing all of this. Family Life is the hard-earned and impressive result.
Despite the many categories into which we can slot it, this tender, darkly humorous novel stands apart. From the opening line, ‘My father has a glum nature,’ it’s a masterpiece of understatement and whatever the opposite of sentimentality is … Ajay’s earnest, deadpan, oddball voice – the voice of a child forced to grow up far too soon – questions without laying blame. This is a novel in which only one thing happens, yet it makes compelling reading from first page to last. Writing a story about hope and sadness this desperate is an act of heroism in itself. To do it with this kind of love, honesty and humility is art of the highest order.
In Akhil Sharma’s second novel, Family Life, the protagonist Ajay recounts his adolescence spent in transition from India to New Jersey with a nearly numb, matter-of-fact nature that occasionally results in readers’ guilty snickers, but more often steers them into cringing sadness. Sharma presents his audience an austere glimpse into the life of the Mishra family, whose seemingly traditional immigrant story is uprooted by a crisis of health and duty … The sharp but surface-level nature of the narration makes Sharma’s themes—family strife, loss, and struggle—palatable, striking chords of sadness and worry without drowning the reader in the kind of self-reflexive spiraling found in traditional, cathartic prose written on similar topics.
Tragically, just before Birju is about to begin at his new high school, he has an accident—he hits his head in a pool and stays unconscious underwater for three minutes, leading to severe brain damage that lasts throughout his life. This accident changes the entire dynamic for the Mishra family … A moving story of displacement and of the inevitable adjustments one must make when life circumstances change.