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After A Disaster In 'Family Life,' Relief Never Comes

Some things in life are just too painful to accept, and the same is true in novels. Family Life is the story of the Mishras, who immigrate to the U.S. in the late 1970s from India. Their departure is such a big deal that townspeople gather around just to have a look at their airplane tickets. Expectations of the life that awaits them start to build. "Americans clean themselves with paper, not water," says a classmate of the younger Mishra brother, Ajay, who narrates the novel. "In America, they say 'yeah' not yes," the boy goes on. To which Ajay replies, "That's nothing. On an airplane, the stewardess has to give you whatever you ask for. I'm going to ask for a baby tiger."

Once the family arrives, the feeling of wonder continues, and even increases. Imagine: carpeting! Automatic doors! And after Ajay's older brother Birju is accepted to a prestigious high school, this innocent and excited family feels secure in its future. Birju's education eventually lead to a career as a doctor, and then who knows what will happen?

But what does happen is that Birju hits his head diving into a swimming pool. He's severely brain-damaged and the golden future is replaced by a terrible nothingness –– not only for Birju himself, but for his parents and brother. Ajay finds himself essentially on his own, as his mother turns to increasingly desperate and pointless measures to cure her son, and his father becomes an alcoholic. A dreadful feeling starts to take over the novel, and all the naïve hopefulness just disappears. 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.

Just as Ajay and his family feel that there must be some way to fix things — some change, some miracle — I briefly felt that way too. After all, novels are often about transformation. Maybe, I thought, there will finally be a scene in which the family appears at the nursing home where Birju lies blind and moaning, and he will show some flicker of response. But no, it's already been established that due to the severity of his injury, that can never, ever happen.

Akhil Sharma, who has said his novel is mostly autobiographical, 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. After hiding the truth of his brother from everyone at school, Ajay decides to come clean, though soon he's exaggerating, telling everyone, "Birju solved a math problem that professors hadn't been able to solve for years," or "My brother was a very fast runner. Once, he threw a ball straight ahead of him, and he chased it and caught it before it hit the ground." It's a clever popularity gambit that finally fails, but it's also something else: it's a fantasy, a necessity. It's an example of a cliché that happens to be true, the one about how we tell ourselves stories to survive.

<em>Family Life</em> is Akhil Sharma's first novel.
Williiam G. Miller / Courtesy of W.W. Norton
Courtesy of W.W. Norton
Family Life is Akhil Sharma's first novel.

The family in this novel has its uncomfortable idiosyncrasies. The mother and son march into Birju's room and call him rude names like "Fatty" and "Smelly." Their hostility is revealed in these small moments, but then a second later Birju is being tended to again with great care. Hostility and love exist together in this family, just the way they do in all families.

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. Receiving the gift of full-time care by a home attendant may not be as magical or exciting as being given a baby tiger on an airplane, but in the case of this fine and memorable novel, it's good enough.

Meg Wolitzer's most recent novel is The Interestings.

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Meg Wolitzer