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India, the late 1970s. Eight-year-old Ajay’s family is one of the many who chose to start a new life in America. For Ajay’s father this is a dream come true; we are told right at the beginning that “he had wanted to emigrate to the West since he was in his early twenties”. America is glamorous, and more than that, it is scientifically advanced. There are people in white coats, and for someone like Ajay’s father, who both loves science above all else and is a hypochondriac, an abundance of doctors is paradise. Doctors can make anything better.
The American Dream starts to come true for the family as they start their life in New York. So, OK, they’re crammed into a tiny apartment smaller than their two concrete rooms back in India, and sure, money was tight, but they had hot water running out of a tap, carpets on the floor, and more than anything, the possibility of greatness. Ajay and his older brother Birju are pushed towards education, being bribed to read library books, and encouraged to study hard to be accepted into the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. Ajay isn’t yet old enough to apply, but Birju is the right age, and – let joy be unconfined! – passes the entrance exam. It’s all coming together.
Until, that is, one fateful day in the summer holidays before Birju’s first term at the new school. One afternoon Birju went to the local swimming baths, as he often did. He jumped into the pool, but hits his head on the concrete base and it is minutes until he is found floating at the bottom of the pool. CPR is delayed, and by the time he is rushed to hospital his brain has been deprived of oxygen, and he is profoundly brain-damaged.
What follows is a portrait of a family trying to adjust, not just in the sense of what it practically means to have to care for someone who is severely disabled, but in the emotional sense. There is shock, grief, anger, and fear. Ajay’s father takes it particularly hard: his beloved science cannot fix his son. He finds solace in a bottle. Ajay’s mother, meanwhile, is left to try and hold everything together. She maintains an almost constant vigil at her elder son’s bedside, while trying to raise Ajay and comfort him.
A classic example of fiction picking apart the precarious nature of the American Dream, it’s both a tragic story about the fragility of (family) life, while at the same time being blackly funny. In the darkest places there can be laughter. Akhil Sharma’s writing is plain but hugely effective. He manages to capture the complicated dynamic between Ajay and his father in just a few lines:
One evening, not long after the anniversary, my father was in Birju’s room drinking tea. I came and stood next him. I was very unhappy. My father must have sensed this. He patted my head quickly, and in his quickness I knew that there was both an acknowledgement of me and a desire that I move away and not say anything. After a moment I said, “Daddy, I am so sad.”
“You’re sad?” my father said angrily. “I want to hang myself every day.”
It is not clear whether the reason he wants to hang himself is Birju’s accident or the annihilation of his dreams for the future.
This is, for me, where Family Life‘s strength lies, in the scenes of a family trying to make sense of the incomprehensible. Ajay is a hugely likeable narrator, and Sharma has done an excellent job of framing a child’s understanding of catastrophic events. In this sense, it is no surprise that the novel won the inaugural Folio Prize this year. But there are weaknesses. The last section of the novel, which deals with Ajay growing up and becoming an adult, felt rushed and slightly slapdash. It would almost have been better to end the novel before Ajay reached adulthood and preserve the pace that had been set in the rest of the book.
But that aside, this was both a quick read – I completed it in a single evening – but also a (mostly) satisfying one. That’s a combination that doesn’t come along very often.
Akhil Sharma, Family Life (London: Faber, 2014). ISBN 9780571224548, RRP £7.99