Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Book Review: "Family Life" by Akhil Sharma

Eight-year-old Ajay, his older brother Birju, and their mother live in India in the late 1970s, waiting for their father to send for them and bring them to America, where he has been working. While they don't truly know what to expect, they dream that America will bring them all of the luxury and privilege they are hoping for, even beyond anything they can imagine.

When their father finally does send their plane tickets, and they are forced to give away almost all of their possessions in preparation, Ajay begins to wonder whether migrating to America is really worth it.

"Till then, I had not fully understood that going to America meant leaving India."

Life in Queens, New York was different than they imagined. But Birju quickly acclimates to school and friends, while sensitive, needy Ajay has trouble making friends and feeling a part of his new home. And despite his family's new wealth, his parents' marriage struggles as well, since his mother, who had been an economics teacher in India, was forced to take a menial job in a factory.

"My father, who had seemed pointless in India, had brought us to America, and made us rich. What he had done was undeniable. He now seemed mysterious, like he was a different person, someone who looked like my father but was not the same man."

Birju gets accepted into the Bronx High School of Science, which buoys the family. Then without warning, tragedy strikes—an accident leaves Birju with a severe brai injury and little to no hope of recovery. The family is utterly despondent and unsure how to move on, day in and day out, between the mounting bills for Birju's care, first at the hospital and then in a nursing home, to their concerns about the quality of care he is getting in the nursing home. Ajay is expected to be the devoted younger brother, praying every day for his brother's recovery, willing to sacrifice anything if it means his brother getting better. He prays to every god imaginable, including Superman, as it "seemed to me we should flatter anyone who could help."

Akhil Sharma's Family Life is the moving story of a family in a state of suspended animation, people adrift, searching and praying for a miracle, yet knowing inherently that such a thing probably won't happen. It's the story of a young boy growing to adulthood in the shadow of a brother who never grew older than the age he was at his accident, and how it feels to suffer in comparison to someone who is alive in physicality only. It's also the story of the damage such an injury causes to the foundation of a family, how they react to the stresses, and how the tightly knit Indian community reacts to them.

This was a poignant book, and Sharma really captured the ever-changing moods and attitudes of Ajay as he grew. His portrayal of Ajay as torn between wishing his life could be free of his presence and the guilt about feeling that way was tremendously accurate, and the feelings of rage and inadequacy that his parents suffered through were very moving as well.

Ultimately, however, I didn't find this book very compelling, because while it was very well written, not very much happened to move the plot along. While I understand that Sharma was trying to demonstrate the limbo a family feels in a case like this, I kept hoping that something monumental might happen to shake the plot up a bit, but nothing did. I marveled at Sharma's use of language, but wished the plot had a bit more oomph.

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