Family Life, a novel by Akhil Sharma, is properly the story of the Mishra family, four Indian immigrants adjusting to a promising new life in 1980s New York. It is actually the story of Sharma’s own family, who became victims of an irrevocable tragedy en route to realizing the American dream.
In the fictionalized account, older brother Birju has just been accepted to the prestigious Bronx High School of Science when a swimming pool accident renders him paralyzed and severely brain damaged. Mother employs a roster of shamanistic healers, father retreats into alcoholism, and younger brother Ajay wrestles with guilt over impudent thoughts. Though their culture prizes selflessness and sacrifice, he would not choose to save his brother by switching places, if he could.
The accident, the healers, a father’s affliction: Sharma lived through them all. But it is Ajay, not Akhil, who narrates the story.
“The reason I wrote [Family Life] as a novel instead of a memoir is because I feel that I can be much more truthful in a novel. I can compress time, I can do all these different things that allow lightness in,” says Sharma.
Rendering something wrenching while leaving room for hope and humor required patience and skill. It took Sharma—author of An Obedient Father (2001), winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award and Whiting Writers’ Award, and one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40”—over 12 years to write Family Life, his second novel. He worked through three computers and countless iterations of many scenes. His efforts yielded 7,000 pages, including a full alternate version of the published manuscript.
“The draft that we did not publish, which is a complete draft, beginning to end ... works as a work of art. It doesn’t work in terms of allowing the reader pleasure going through the book,” says Sharma. “The most important thing is to have the reader experience the emotional reality of this world, and for it to be a satisfying experience. That draft was so dark, it wasn’t generating the experience I wanted. If I’m going to spend twelve years writing something, I want it to be something that reader won’t put down.”
Sharma achieved a quick, compelling read at 224 pages. Swift pacing is due, in part, to a deficit of physical descriptors Sharma calls “sticky”—smells, sounds, et cetera. “The story is: something occurs, and the weight of the event causes the family to change. If I put in all the elements of the sensorium, the sentences would feel very heavy, and the plot isn’t enough to keep pushing you through. By creating scenes that are not sticky, I allow the reader to move through these scenes very quickly,” he says.
Success in long-term caregiving requires repetition. Endless nursing home days segue into round-the-clock care administered in a suburban New Jersey home purchased with money from the modest legal settlement.
It could be boring and difficult for the second son. At school, Ajay alternates overachievement with acting out. At first he hides the truth about his home life; later, he lies. “Whenever I told someone about Birju, I felt compelled to lie about his wonderfulness. Because we had received so little money in the settlement, which meant that Birju was an ordinary boy, lying seemed the only way to explain that what had happened to him was extraordinary. Birju, I said, had rescued a woman trapped in a burning car. Birju had a great talent for music and a photographic memory,” Sharma writes.
“When I would share what happened to my brother, I felt nobody could really appreciate it, even if something similar happened to them. This is the way that children think—how powerless people think, grabbing onto victimization. So in that scene where [Ajay’s] at school, it makes sense to me that he would try to tell all these lies to aggrandize his poor brother, to make it meaningful in a way that it hadn’t been,” says Sharma.
Ajay earns high marks in school, admission to an Ivy League college and a six-figure investment banking job. Whether he achieves his brother’s promise or his own is indecipherable; the Mishras’ promised life will forever entwine with the actual one.
“Everybody's life has suffering in it. Either it has already had it, or it will come. My family had a lot, but in many ways it’s not really that different from what everybody experiences or will,” says Sharma. But to balance, he continues, “There’s a lot of happiness in the world, too. You know, I get up in the morning, I have my little cup of coffee, and I’m like, ‘Man, this is delicious.’ ‘This book is good.’ ‘Things are wonderful.’”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.