Saturday 7 December 2019

Author unearths many moving truths about the nuclear family

'Family Life' by Akhil Sharma
'Family Life' by Akhil Sharma

Benjamin Evans

Mrs Mishra is treated with prickly jealousy by her Delhi neighbours after her husband, having settled in New York as a government clerk, sends them plane tickets. Their rascally youngest son Ajay cannot stop talking about the land of "jet packs and chewing gum".

When they join Mr Mishra at his apartment, with its elevators and hot water on tap, America initially lives up to its mythic glamour.

Yet after the eldest brother Birju smashes his head while diving into a swimming pool, any prospect of prosperity, liberty or happiness seems to be snuffed out.

Forced to accept a shabby litigation settlement, they struggle to care for their brain-damaged son at home.

Ajay is dubbed a freak by his white schoolmates for making up lies that glorify his brother's pre-accident talents. There is no escaping the desperate fact that Birju will never get better.

How Ajay handles this tragedy brings sparkle back into this finely balanced narrative. Daydreaming, he chats with God, who gives him laconic advice while dressed like Clark Kent in a grey cardigan.

After acquiring a taste for Hemingway, Ajay emulates his tough, detached brevity in his own short stories, which probe what happened to his family with a few artful concealments.

Because 'Family Life' is largely autobiographical, that same control also gives Sharma's novel its cool, touchable surface, despite the molten grief below.

Sharma unearths a plethora of shrewd and moving truths about the nuclear family.

Upon Birju's homecoming, local South Asians flock round to mop the floors and festoon the house with flowers. Perhaps, as this brilliantly discomfiting novel intimates, only other people can supply an effective palliative for the ailments of family life.

Irish Independent

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