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Family Life by Akhil Sharma

Family Life (2014)

by Akhil Sharma

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It is a silent, powerful story about a family building their life in the States, exploring the dark side of emigration against the backdrop of personal tragedy.

For a complete review please click on the link below:

( )
  ashkrishwrites | Aug 29, 2018 |
Yesterday at the bookshop, I had the choice between Akhil Sharma's Family Life and Lin Yutang's The Importance of Living.

After going through both, I decided to go for The Importance of Living.

The writing in Akhil Sharma's book is amateurish. It's a book that has been written for the masses. The writing is so simple that there is no depth. You would have to "fish for depth", concoct complicate ways of explaining the meaning of the story, but really, there is no depth.

I don't wish to hurt or harm Akhil Sharma by saying this. I know that a negative review is what it is: a negative review. And I don't have the energy to do that anymore, because I am tired of the number of times I have been disappointed with what The New Yorker, The New York Times and the Guardian advertise as a "must read". What's wrong with the publishing world? Why isn't someone doing something about it? Why are we still under the sway of the majority?

The system of using literary agents to connect the author to the publisher must be abolished. Literary agents only seek profits and profits can only be made if they can attract readers in masses. And what do the masses want? Mediocre literature!

Don't tell me that:
1. Small presses or independent presses operate differently! They want a share of the market too. They are just starting small, reaping the benefits of typical SME's and hoping to be like every other Harper Collins, Penguin or Bloomsbury.

2. The Importance of Living is a totally different genre than Family Life and that these two can't be compared. Of course they can. Leaf through the pages. You see substance in a few lines of Lin Yutang's book and just notes in Akhil Sharma's.

So why did Akhil Sharma turn popular overnight? Because he went to Harvard Law School and won many short story prizes? As one reviewer on Goodreads said, surely he (Akhil Sharma) had connections and credentials. Otherwise, if his publisher was really intent on giving the public work of substance, work that was on a par with so many good writers who have come and gone, then he would not have allowed this on the market. ( )
1 vote humeirah | Jun 29, 2016 |
This intense and engrossing family drama chronicles the early years of Ajay Mishra, whose family moves from New Delhi to the United States in the late 1970s. Ajay's father emigrates first, fulfilling a lifelong dream. He gets a job as a government clerk, rents an apartment in Queens, and, a year after leaving India, sends plane tickets for his wife and two sons, Ajay and Birju. For Ajay, the shock of finding himself living in America never really goes away, even when he grows up. He is constantly being reminded that Indians are different from Americans and that the differences are real and have an impact on the kind of life one is permitted to live. Still, he assimilates as well as can be expected, though more slowly than Birju, watching with a combination of envy and admiration as his older brother accumulates academic successes while his own accomplishments remain ordinary. Still, Ajay can't help but share in the family's pride when Birju is accepted into the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. Then disaster strikes. Birju is injured in a swimming accident. The rest of the story shows us a family in ongoing emotional crisis, alternately at war with and comforting each other on a daily basis. Unable to accept what has happened, Ajay's mother succumbs to the claims of healers who say they can fix her son. Resigned to disappointment and defeat, his father withdraws into a bottle. Ajay continues his efforts to become American and is often mortified by his parents', and his own, Indian-ness. Akhil Sharma's depiction of the conflicting cultural and emotional tensions in Ajay's life is unflinching and poignant, occasionally leavened by absurdist humour. Family Life, despite the tragedy at its core, is an emotionally reticent novel. Even the most heart-rending scenes are narrated in Ajay's coolly distant and unsentimental voice. Paradoxically, it is a voice that generates great suspense and leaves the reader deeply moved. ( )
  icolford | Nov 22, 2015 |

[bc:Family Life|24911276|Family Life|Akhil Sharma|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1423668617s/24911276.jpg|25993799]
[b:Family Life|24911276|Family Life|Akhil Sharma|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1423668617s/24911276.jpg|25993799]

4.5 starts

I loved this book. It felt honest and profound. For such a short read it was very intense and powerful. I have taken a few days to write this review, to let some feeling and thoughts settled down first.
This novel is elegant and beautiful. It’s also dark and tragic, but it also has its share of light and funny moments.
Indian-American author Akhil Sharma has been described as a “supreme storyteller” and after reading this novel I can see why. This is a story about immigrants, tragedy, religion and traditions, race, and ultimately about the pursuit of happiness gone wrong. There’s not strong plot on this book, it mostly narrates events as they happen.

Family Life begins in the present moment and then flashes back .The novel is written in 1st person narrative, Ajay, who is the younger of two brothers, is the narrator.

One of my pet peeves when reading books narrated by children characters is to find that the dialogue doesn’t feel real. I hate when a 10-year old that sounds more like he or she is 25!!
To this point, I found that at moments Ajay in fact, had a voice that sounded a little bit too mature for his years. The author explained that by using flashbacks as a device, he tried to circumvent this problem.

This is how he explained it in an interview:
“The logic of it was that I wanted to figure out a way to allow the language of the eight-year old, the nine-year old be a little more sophisticated. And so by making clear that this was retrospective, it allowed some of that complexity to come through to the younger Ajay”

At the beginning of the book (I listened to the audiobook version) and I got a little confused and thought that perhaps I was reading a memoir and not a work of fiction. Later on a fellow GR reader sent me an article that mentions that Mr. Sharma indeed wrote this book as a semi-autobiographical account of his own family experience coming to America.

The novel follows The Mishras, an Indian family that emigrated to America in the late 1970’s.
When we first meet the family, they are still in Delhi, waiting for their planes tickets to arrive so they can start their new lives in America.
When they arrived in New Jersey, their father is waiting for them. At the beginning, both 8 year-old Ajay, and his older brother Birju, are amazed at what they find in their new country: elevators, doors that open automatically, they even find carpets thrilling. America is all they had expected and more.

Young Ajay points out, “In India during winter, my mother used to get up early to heat pots of water on the stove so we could bathe … During the coming days, the wealth of America kept astonishing me. The television had programming from morning till night. In our shiny brass mailbox in the lobby, we received ads on colored paper. The sliding glass doors of our apartment building would open when we approached."

A few years into their lives in their new country, and while the family is looking at houses with the idea of buying one; young Ajay has a “sudden realization that probably we will never go back to India, that probably we will live in America forever”. I think most immigrants at one point of another experience a similar situation and decision. This brings with it the understanding that the person you left behind is in the past, and you will probably become a very different “you” in this new land. Such a realization could be particularly disturbing for kids, which for the most part have not control over their lives and where their parents choose to live.

Our narrator Ajay is smart, and inquisitive. He can also be, stubborn and even mean sometimes. But it is in Birju, the older of the two brothers, where the family has put their immediate expectations for a brighter future. When Birju is accepted into a prestigious high school, everything seems to be going well as this confirms their hopes that Birju is destined to do great things.
What happens instead is that tragedy strikes when Birju hits his head diving into a pool. He is severely brain-damaged and his future is changed forever all within the span of 3 minutes. He’ll never recover and fulfil his dreams. He’ll never talk, walk or recognize anybody.

At first 10-year old Ajay doesn’t seem to realize the gravity of the situation and he casually muses, that if Birju were dead, “I would get to be the only son.”

After this horrible incident occurs, the dynamic of the family is shaken to its core. Ajay finds himself extremely lonely as his parents, and especially his mother, is consumed with the idea that her son will somehow recovered. Besides Ajay, Mrs. Mishra is most important character in this novel. She is a resilient, strong woman, we can sense her profound grief, and how she chooses to deal with it. She insists that Birju is in a “coma”, because she’s not ready to accept the reality that her son is brain-dead.
She invites numerous “miracle workers” with the hope that one of them will perform a miracle and bring her lost son back. It’s heartbreaking to see her get lost and her identity in the process.

Times passes and life for the Mishras revolves around taking care of Birju and attending and providing for his medical needs. The parents fight a lot. The father becomes an alcoholic.
One Christmas Day, Ajay bursts into tears, and tells his parents that he too deserves something, for enduring so much sadness, at least some pizza. “I am so sad,” Ajay tells his father one evening. “You’re sad?” his father responds; “I want to hang myself every day”.

Ajay has conversations with God; he feels guilty for being the one person of the family that still seems to have luck on his side. I found these ruminations he has with God, charming, funny and authentic. He tries cajoling God into making deals to improve things for both his brother and himself.

Ajay also discovers literature, this serves as a saving grace for him in the middle of such much despair. I found the passages where he studies Hemingway’s style of writing truly wonderful and poignant.

This novel shows how unsettling experiencing a tragedy such as this can be to any family, and how it can make any family deeply dysfunctional. But there are also beautiful moments, especially between Ajay and his mom, in which they put aside hostility and hurt and come together to take care of Birju and each other.
I found admirable to see how the Mishras enjoyed the moral support of many other Indian families. Their immigrant community plays an important role in helping them throughout the years. Not everybody has their best interest at heart though, some friends are loyal and honorable while others abandon them in their time of need and yet others try to take advantage and exploit their situation.
And of course, Ajay grows up; falls in love, applies for college, makes plans for his future. When he eventually leaves his home, he gets a chance to at least try to have a normal life.

Ajay and his family continue to assimilate more and more into the American way of life. He becomes an investment banker and accomplishes financial success. But towards the end of the novel we see how very broken he is. At the end the question is, was the prize for his success too high?
We have a strong feeling that something didn't go the way it was supposed to.

Family Life ends when Ajay, in the present, comes to a strong, very sudden realization. As to whether or not I found the ending of the novel satisfying, I believe the author put it best when he said ““to me, the book still feels undone”.
Whether or not you are an immigrant (like me) or not, I think that many will relate with this story and the difficulties of adjusting to a new life, a new place, a new language, a new beginning. In that sense, this is a pretty universal story.

The Narrator of the audiobook Vikas Adam did a great job at bringing this novel to life for me. He was particularly skillful at switching between Indian and American accents, both for female & male characters, which can be quite tricky.

( )
  irisper012106 | Nov 1, 2015 |
Recommended by David Sedaris at Powells book talk.
  untitled841 | Aug 20, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393060055, Hardcover)

"Outstanding…Every page is alive and surprising, proof of [Sharma’s] huge, unique talent."—David Sedaris

Hailed as a "supreme storyteller" (Philadelphia Inquirer) for his "cunning, dismaying and beautifully conceived" fiction (New York Times), Akhil Sharma is possessed of a narrative voice "as hypnotic as those found in the pages of Dostoyevsky" (The Nation). In his highly anticipated second novel, Family Life, he delivers a story of astonishing intensity and emotional precision.

We meet the Mishra family in Delhi in 1978, where eight-year-old Ajay and his older brother Birju play cricket in the streets, waiting for the day when their plane tickets will arrive and they and their mother can fly across the world and join their father in America. America to the Mishras is, indeed, everything they could have imagined and more: when automatic glass doors open before them, they feel that surely they must have been mistaken for somebody important. Pressing an elevator button and the elevator closing its doors and rising, they have a feeling of power at the fact that the elevator is obeying them. Life is extraordinary until tragedy strikes, leaving one brother severely brain-damaged and the other lost and virtually orphaned in a strange land. 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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:08 -0400)

Finally joining their father in America, Ajay and Birju enjoy their new, extraordinary life until tragedy strikes, leaving one brother incapacitated and the other practically orphaned in this strange land.

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