Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 08/14/15 10:29 AM

Book review: Family Life by Akhil Sharma

Akhil Sharma’s Family Life is so direct, so honest, it takes the reader aback.

Straddling the thin line between fiction and memoir, Sharma gives us an unflinching account of how the Mishras, an ordinary family, migrate to the United States and even as things begin to look up for them, catastrophe strikes. The narrator’s older brother Birju goes swimming, hits his head at the bottom of the pool, loses consciousness for some crucial minutes and is brain-damaged for life.

Naturally, things can never be the same for the family. The father slides into drink, the mother welcomes all kinds of healers, miracle workers and therapists of dubious persuasion into the house in her desperate bid to save the comatose boy, and the narrator tries to salvage out of this train wreck, some kind of a normal life with virtually all the odds stacked high against him.

The style is straightforward, understated, the syntax is flawed. Sentences like `his eyes got wet,` `I couldn’t understand why I had done this thing; `we would take it to temple; `he took the mush into his mouth then puffed it onto the newspaper;` `her eyes were wide and white` abound. You wonder if it is uneven editing or just letting a troubled person tell a troubling story, in his own voice, a voice seemingly carefully leached of all emotion.

At times, the heartbreak is unendurable, for the family, for the reader. “I am so sad,” the narrator Ajay tells his father one evening. “You’re sad?” his father replies. “I want to hang myself every day.”

The run-up to the tragedy is so mired in mundane settling-in matters, when the accident occurs, it hits the reader without any warning. The book is of course a coming- of- age story for the narrator only, the boy grows up in a manner one wouldn’t wish on one’s worst enemy. At times, the light shining on the Mishra family is such a relentless one, the reader wants to avert her eyes from the page.

Family Life moves fluidly along, and so is a smooth read despite the fact that it a difficult story to tell. Dealing as it does with grief, denial, defiance and a host of complex, ambivalent emotions, this is a brave book.

This, when the narrator discovers the joyful escape books can be:

As I sat there reading, I got happier and happier.

Akhil Sharmabook reviewFamily Lifefiction

Sheila Kumar • August 14, 2015

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