Family Life by Akhil Sharma winner of the 2016 Award
A novel is a collection of facts that just happen to have been made up. As the reader reads they stream in to the reader’s imagination and form a virtual equivalent of what was in the writer’s head. The efficacy of this transaction is in direct ratio to the veracity of the author’s facts. The better they are, the sharper the world that takes shape in the reader’s psyche. As readers we know this. Mediocre texts generate fuzzy chimeras, while more authoritative narratives so convince we can talk about the characters in the story, for example, just as we talk about our friends because they are as real as our friends. But beyond these is an even higher kind of novel that does more than engage. This kind occupies you so absolutely that while you read and for a while after you finish, the specificities of your own life don’t exist because they have been supplanted by the specificities of the author’s invented world. This kind of usurpation is the greatest pleasure a reader can know and Family Life by Akhil Sharma is one of those rare novels that does this.
The narrative of Family Life is thus: the Mishra’s – mother, father and two sons, Birju and his younger brother Ajay (who tells the story and is the novel’s pivot) emigrate from India to the US in 1978. For Ajay’s older brother, Birju, the New World is initially a triumph until an accident in a swimming pool causes catastrophic brain damage, after which he needs twenty-four care. Initially he receives this in medical settings, but then he goes home and is cared for by his parents and his brother. The story of Birju’s care is the kernel of the novel, it’s living heart.
As a reading experience Family Life desolates and infuriates. It prompts questions too. Why should the suffering rich get better care than the suffering rest? Isn’t all human suffering equal? However, alongside its subtle interrogation of inequality (this isn’t a febrile work of social criticism) the novel also celebrates the Mishra family’s achievement. For all their imperfections, and they have plenty, (there are no paragons in this novel), somehow they cope and somehow they meet Birju’s needs, which is a kind of triumph and, for a reader, it is profoundly consoling that they manage this.
Suffering and the struggle to ameliorate suffering are not unknown in fiction but Family Life pulls off the extraordinary feat of showing them in their correct alignment. Closing the book, having known this mix of light and dark, you are left with the sense that while reading you were actually at the core of human experience and what it is to be alive. This is the highest form of achievement in literature. Few manage it. This novel does. Triumphantly. Luminously. Movingly. All hail Family Life by Akhil Sharma.