Family Life/Akhil Sharma: Reflections

Sunday, February 16, 2014

I arrived early to the ALA Midwinter on (another) snowy Philadelphia day. I was desperate for a copy of Stacey D'Erasmo's Wonderland. I was eager to see what other stories were being ushered into the world. And I hoped to visit the booths of publishing houses that once traveled some of this road with me. I made an early stop at W.W. Norton, therefore—the first house and editor (Alane Mason) who believed in me.

Among the titles being promoted was Family Life by Akhil Sharma (An Obedient Father), which is fantastically well blurbed by Ann Packer, Gary Shteyngart, Edmund White, and Kiran Desai, and is described this way:
America to the newly immigrated Mishras is everything they could have imagined and more—until tragedy strikes, leaving them lost and shattered. Ajay, the family's younger son, prays to a God he envisions as Superman, longing to find his place amid the ruins of his family's new life. Heart-wrenching and darkly funny, Family Life is a universal story of a boy torn between duty and his own survival.
What a surprising novel this is—a terrible story seemingly simply told. Seemingly, I say, for nothing this elemental, this nearly plainspoken, this ultimately elegant is simple. It took this author thirteen years, we learn in an interview with Moshin Hamid, to find a way to translate his own true story into fiction. To somehow tell the story of a promising brother's terrible accident and its impact on a family that had come to Queens from India in search of the better life. The brother must be cared for. The father cannot bear it. The mother has no life but caring. The magical people who come with promises of cures have no impact. Ajay, the younger brother, watches, tries to help, tries not to feel anger, tries not to feel shame, tries somehow to be someone in the midst of everything. He will laugh at the wrong times, pray to everything, pray inconsequentially:
The most important thing was to appeal to God. Each morning, my mother and I prayed before the altar. To me the altar was like a microphone—whatever we said in front of it would be broadcast directly to him. When I did my prayers, I traced an om, a crucifix, a Star of David onto the carpet by pressing against the pile. Beneath these I drew an S inside an upside-down triangle, for Superman. It seemed to me we should flatter anyone who could help.
Ajay will study Hemingway, try to write like Hemingway, try to see his life as someone else might see it so that it can be written of. He will try to take solace, but as family falls increasingly apart, solace is sparse. It will not be easy, ever, to trust the slightest trace of happiness.

In his conversation with Hamid, Sharma speaks of why he chose fiction over memoir to tell his story. These words from that interview are telling. Asked what Sharma left out of the story, Sharma says:
The constant despair of living with someone ill, of having no hope. The gravitational pull of that was the most important aspect of my childhood and youth. To describe it truthfully would be to foreground it. Despair is repetitive and dull, however. Not only is it boring but it also kills the reader's interest in the other strands of the narrative.
Family Life is, no question, palpably sad. It is a novel quietly told and deeply felt. But breaking through the surface is Ajay himself—ribald at times, funny at others, compassionate, too.  He is a boy growing up. Sharma makes us care about his journey.


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