FAMILY LIFE. By Akhil Sharma. Norton. 218 pages. $23.95.
Akhil Sharma's "Family Life," his second novel (after 2000's Pen/Hemingway Award-winning "An Obedient Father"), tells the story of a catastrophe that befalls the Mishras, a family of Indian immigrants who leave their homeland behind in the wake of Indira Gandhi's Emergency. The opening page introduces us to Ajay, who narrates the novel from an adult's perspective as he looks back on his childhood, and his parents.
They are all just as they were in the long ago years before Birju, the golden older son, dived into a pool, hit his head, and spent three undetected minutes under water. The father is glum, sometimes silent for days; the mother is cheerful and a little bossy ("Be like me," she advises. "Look how I'm always smiling"); Ajay is the mediator and recorder. He is the hero who drags the family secrets into the light and onto the page. His story of the insular, mysterious workings of a family in despair is in the end a fortifying one.
"Family Life" is faithful to events in Sharma's own family. He told a recent interviewer: "Almost everything in the novel is true." Why not write a memoir, then? The novel took him 13 years to write and is the sleek remnant of a 7,000-page manuscript. It does not aspire to completeness. Sharma's punch comes from withholding as much as from expression, from selective forgetting and targeted remembering.
The ghost of India is a vivid presence in "Family Life." Ajay remembers the Delhi of the 1970s as a sleepy place where children play cricket in the street. They are so frugal that they take the cotton out of pill bottles and use it to make wicks. Before the family departs, neighbors and relatives come little by little to strip the house. Finally, only a bucket of plastic toys is left. Little Ajay distributes them to neighborhood children on his last morning in Delhi, in hopes that he'll be remembered.
At the center of Sharma's book is the paradox of transformation. Seemingly irreversible processes, as all readers of fairy tales know, are really provisional stages. The Mishras briefly feel themselves to be living in a fairy tale, from the discovery of hot tap water and wall-to-wall carpeting in America to the magic ascension of Birju to the Bronx High School of Science.
All the father's efforts to promote his family's assimilation (the tennis rackets, the library cards) are undone in the three minutes that Birju spends at the bottom of a pool. Ajay's first image of his changed brother - eyes wide open as if in panic, surrounded by wires and tubes, "like he was in the middle of many clotheslines" - is horrible and thrilling in its precision.
Each family member lives out the crisis in his or her own way. The mother turns to prayer, pundits and miracle workers. Eventually, they move Birju back home, where he occupies the dining room, and his bed becomes a sort of pilgrimage site for Indian believers.
Ajay sees his mother's continuing hope as ridiculous and damaging. She likens it to the pursuit of something lost and precious. ("If I lost a diamond earring, would I not look everywhere?")
The father disappears into drink, eventually checking himself into Bellevue.
Ajay cycles through variations of grandiosity and guilt. What kind of story is he living in? They are all in their own ways angry. As the mother says, "Even a cow has horns."
Throughout the book, Ajay grapples with finding a voice and a way to tell his own story, while realizing that he's part of other ongoing narratives, especially his family's and the tradition of literature. In the months just after Birju's accident, Ajay practices telling his story to God, who looks something like Clark Kent but is more like the president, "distant and busy, not interested in small things."
When he gets up the nerve, he concocts tales of an ideal brother to impress his classmates. Birju was a genius; he took French for two weeks and after that could speak it perfectly. Birju solved a math problem that had stumped math professors for years. Each heroic feat only boosts Ajay's rage at the loss. He's also ashamed at his own undeserved gains. It comes to see that he owns "a surplus of the family's luck." He knows his luck will take him away from them.
Ajay's mother concludes the opening scene with a question that drives the novel: "Where is Ajay? What was the point of having raised him?" In the metrics of family happiness, the scale is never balanced. Someone is always missing. Some points are never clear.
But in scene after beautifully honest scene, Sharma builds an answer to Mrs. Mishra's question: the daily practice of tenderness and the recognition of suffering have made Ajay the man who can speak his family's truth. The point of raising Ajay is that he became the person who could write the book.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.