Thursday, 9 February 2017

Family Life - Akhil Sharma

A story about emigration laced with family tragedy.

I love diasporia stories and Lahiri and Divakaruni are big favourites. But where these writes have glamourised the idea of moving and living in a different country, Sharma explores the dark side of what happens when things don't go to plan.

Family Life with its low profile almost banal title tells a very poignant story of an ambitious family caught in a vortex of unfortunate circumstances. The long term effects as a result of those "three minutes" on the family members, is what the author explores in the book.

Ajay is eight when he moves to New York with his mother and older brother Birju. Proud of his ability to get his family over, his father is looking forward to a better life in the states. They have set their hopes on fifteen-year- old Birju who is sitting a test that will get him into a top university. He does make it, but then a family tragedy turns their life upside down. Family life takes a look at what happened to the various members of the Mishra family as absorb the turn of events, making their way in a new culture.

What works:
  • The subject matter is quite sad. But Sharma looks at things very dispassionately yet manages to convey the seriousness and the desolate nature of the situation.
  • The fact that he is a creative writing professor comes as no surprise. He explains how he is fascinated by Hemingway and tries to study his style. There is another article in the New Yorker wherein he outlines the creative process. Reading it made me understand how the author must have stuggled with the book, writing a personal story yet distancing oneself to make it palatable for others. You can find the article here.
  • The killer is the ending. Just when you think he has finished telling his story, he drops a bomb that leaves you stunned, shocked that there isn't more!
  • He has an amazing style. Instead of delving on the emotional side of it, he has refrained from overindulgence and has maintained a detached demeanour. His strength lies in allowing the reader to figure how tough it must have been instead of laying it out. He has an implicit faith in the reader's intelligence and that works well for him. 
What doesn't:
  • It is a depressing story as guardian review rightly calls it "unhappy  emigration". So if sad depressing stories are not your thing, maybe you will feel let down. But having said that, it offers an interesting perspective into an average emigrant family's tough life in the Capitalist States. 
  • The title is boring. I actually stayed away from the book because the title did not intrigue me enough. It was only the rave reviews that drew me towards it.
But then this book has won the Folio Prize and also the Dublin International Literary prize. Although such prizes do not mean it is a good book (I have picked up prize winning books only to be sorely disappointed) this one is really worth the prizes it has won. I read through it in one sitting on a early night in bed. You just cannot put it down.

I love reading the acknowledgements. I have always believed writing though a solitary pursuit, always shines with a good support system. Sharma mentions about how long it took him to write the book (so does the article) and the pain and the struggle that went into it.

For me, a story based on personal experience makes it a lot more genuine. It brings to mind, Sanghera's Boy with a Topknot yet another story with the author's family riding at the heart of it. Like Family life, it draws on an unpleasant family secret that comes to fore years later and how the family copes with it.

If the review has made you curious, you can check out an excerpt of the novel, that appeared as a short story in The New Yorker. 

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