Family Life by Akhil Sharma
Published in 2014 by Faber & Faber
My copy: Handed down by mother-in-law!
Ajay, eight years old, spends his afternoons playing cricket in the streets of Delhi with his brother Birju, four years older. They are about to leave for shiny new life in America. Ajay anticipates, breathlessly, a world of jet-packs and chewing-gum. This promised land of impossible riches and dazzling new technology is also a land that views Ajay with suspicion and hostility…
When a terrible accident makes a mockery of that dream, the family splinters
This is a book where not much happens – yet I found it gripping enough to read in one day, way past my bedtime! I do like a book about the immigrant experience, and this is exactly what we have at the start, as the family’s neighbours in Delhi view them with jealousy when their tickets to America arrive. Ajay is excited – especially when he arrives in America to discover hot water pouring from the taps, and cartoons on TV all day!
But then Ajay’s brother is involved in a horrible accident, and the whole family falls apart.
At this point the book changes a lot, and the nationality and location of the characters becomes secondary. The focus of the book is on how the three main characters in the book, Ajay and his parents, deal with the aftermath of the accident. This is brilliantly done through the eyes of the devastated eight year old Ajay, who struggles to deal with both what has happened, and his dramatically changed parents. As his father hits the bottle and his mother turns to more and more outlandish ways to make life better, Ajay struggles with his own growing pains.
This is a very sad, bittersweet novel – and it is even more poignant when you discover that the novel is semi-autobiographical. You feel so bad for all the characters in the book – none more so than poor Ajay who tries desperately to make sense of what has happened.
The author took many years to write this book, and apparently had thousands of pages that were eventually edited down to just over 200. And while I wouldn’t necessarily want to read thousands of pages, I actually wouldn’t have minded if this book were longer. I would have liked more about how the family first settled in America, and also the end felt quite rushed as we skipped through several years in a matter of paragraphs.
But really this is my only complaint about what is otherwise a really beautiful, touching novel that really stays with you after you have finished reading it.