Thursday, October 8, 2015

#Diversiverse Review: Family Life, by Akhil Sharma

Akhil Sharma's Family Life is a small book that packs a pretty whopping punch in the gut.  It's no wonder it took Sharma a full decade to write it.  The book is based on the author's own harrowing life experience of his brother's fateful headfirst dive into the floor of a swimming pool and the subsequent trauma that his family went through.

In the 1970s, Ajay's distant and wealth-obsessed father moves to the United States.  Ajay, his older brother, Birju, and his mother join a couple of years later.  Immediately, Ajay's parents are consumed with Birju getting into a selective high school.  They pour all their energy and love into their son and are thrilled when he is accepted.  Before he can attend, however, Birju has a major accident.  Ajay narrates how completely life changes for all of them and how hard it can be to lose hope when so many of your dreams were pinned on one person.

This is not an easy book to read.  The language is spare and Sharma doesn't get very emotional.  But the way he describes Ajay's growing sense of isolation from his parents, his father's descent into alcoholism, and his mother's growing resentment of everyone who cannot help her son return to his former self all comes through so clearly.  All this while they dealt with being immigrants in a foreign culture.  While it didn't take me 10 years, it did take me a good three weeks to finish reading it because it's so weighty.

I admit I didn't really like any of the characters in this book.  Ajay is not a very sympathetic character, but it's easy to see why he feels neglected when his parents seem not to care much at all for all his successes.  His parents, too, seem unkind and cruel, but again, you can see how much stress they are dealing with.  The other Indians in the story seem pretty shiftless, and the non-Indians seem racist.  And maybe all that is true, but it does make for some hard reading.

But I don't think this is a book about the characters, necessarily.  It's a book about dealing with the loss of someone who is so central to your life, even while you care for that person every day.  It's about what happens when other people stop feeling sorry for you or giving you sympathy and care, but you have to keep going while nothing changes for the better or worse.  It's about navigating relationships that have lasted through so much but now are defined by one moment that was no one's fault.  It's not a situation anyone wants to go through.  But it's a situation a lot of people do go through.  And maybe Akhil Sharma has written a book that makes sense to them, and gives comfort to them.


  1. Oh, I don't think I could bear to read it. But you wrote a nice report.

  2. I have a feeling that this book is going to hit too close to home, making it a tough one to read. But it also sounds too good to be ignored. I will put this one on my radar.

  3. I find it so hard to read books where everyone in it is unlikable. However, it's also hard to read books where everyone is just so wonderful... There needs to be a balance of good qualities and flaws. Sounds like a really tough book. :(

  4. Anonymous10/14/2015

    Oh this one sounds like a tough read. I don't necessarily need characters to be likeable and I do love the setting, just not sure I can take so much grief.

  5. I must have seen this recommended by someone I rate as I requested it from the local library and now its the next book I'm going to read, on a train journey tomorrow. I have just skimmed the first few pages and thought it looked good. Thanks for your thoughts here. Ten years to write a novel makes my efforst seem puny! Caroline


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