Wednesday, November 11, 2015

FAMILY LIFE by Akhil Sharma

What happens to a family when the brilliant older son suffers acute brain damage in a swimming pool accident?  Now imagine that the family are recent immigrants to Queens from India.  They straddle their Indian and American cultures as best they can, negotiating the American healthcare and legal systems, while praying that Indian rituals will somehow restore their son Birju to normalcy.  The younger son Ajay tells this story with occasional bouts of humor but always with an overall cloud of survivor’s guilt.  To compensate for the tragic turn that his family life has taken, he tells whoppers at school and uses the pickup line “I love you” with the girls he thinks would make good girlfriends.  Meanwhile, his father sinks deeper and deeper into alcoholism, which could cost him his job and therefore the medical benefits that Birju requires.  I would not say that Ajay’s parents are neglectful of him, but certainly they’re not aware of the toll that Birju’s condition is taking on him.  Ajay’s coping mechanisms are alternately funny and poignant, but his parents quarrel constantly and they often vent their anger at Ajay, rendering his childhood almost unbearable.  The fact that this novel is basically autobiographical makes it that much more gut-wrenching but also more revealing in some ways.  In one section, Ajay decides that he could become rich as a writer, without having to study law or science.  He then researches Hemingway’s style without actually reading anything Hemingway wrote.  Then he takes a stab at putting Hemingway’s techniques to use in his own short story, and I thought the result was pretty amazing.  Reading this book, however, is a whole lot easier than reading Hemingway.  

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