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.
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.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
A new novel follows an Indian family on their journey to the United States, and looks at what happens to them in their new country. It's a short book, just a little more than 200 pages, but the story is such a personal one that it took author Akhil Sharma more than a decade to write.
Here's author Meg Wolitzer with a review.
MEG WOLITZER: "Family Life" is the story of the Mishras. They move from India to the U.S. in the late 1970s. It's such a big deal that people in their town gather around just to look at their airplane tickets. Americans clean themselves with paper, not water, says a classmate of the younger Mishra brother. That's nothing. he says back. On an airplane, the stewardess has to give you whatever you ask for. I'm going to ask for a baby tiger.
That feeling of wonder doesn't stop when the family arrives in Queens. The older son is accepted at a prestigious school and this innocent family feels secure in its future. But what ends up happening is that the older brother dives into a shallow swimming pool. He's severely brain damaged and the golden future becomes a terrible nothingness. Not just for him, but for the parents and the younger brother, Ajay, who is also the book's narrator.
For a while, reading "Family Life" feels a little bit like drowning. Ajay is essentially on his own. His mother makes desperate and pointless attempts to cure her older son. And his father becomes an alcoholic. The excitement about America, with it's astonishments like TV programming from morning till night, is replaced by descriptions of seizures and suffering.
Novels are often about transformation. I thought, maybe there will be a scene where the brother shows some flicker of response. But it doesn't happen.
In an interview, Sharma said that this book is mostly autobiographical. And he pointed out that when you're writing about long-term illness there tends not to be plot. It can be boring. So he created a series of small narratives so that readers would keep reading. And we do.
Sharma shows the family with all of their uncomfortable idiosyncrasies. Often Ajay and his mother call the brother names like Fatty and Smelly. But then a second later, they tend to him with great care. Hostility and love exist here together, just like in all families.
Eventually Ajay grows up and has his own life. He's able to provide for his brother in a way his parents couldn't. Receiving the gift of a full-time home attendant may not be as magical or exciting as a baby tiger, but in the case of this fine and memorable novel, it's good enough.
CORNISH: The book is "Family Life" by Akhil Sharma. It was reviewed by Meg Wolitzer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.