Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 224 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
I recently watched a documentary by British journalist Louis Theroux about patients in a Los Angeles hospital fighting for their lives.
One young man was in a coma and his prognosis was bleak: doctors said it was highly unlikely he’d ever recover and that he’d spend the rest of his life in a vegetative state. But his family had other ideas: they refused to believe he would not recover. And, lo and behold, against impossible odds, he eventually came around and could walk and talk again. Hope, it seems, can sometimes have the power to work magic.
In Akhil Sharma’s second novel, Family Life, an immigrant Indian family living in suburban America face a similar situation: their eldest son Birju, a promising young scholar, survives a tragic accident that leaves him brain damaged, blind and unable to walk or talk. He requires constant care around the clock, but his family never give up hope that he will eventually emerge unscathed from the condition that has so destroyed his life and irrevocably altered theirs.
This heartbreaking story is told from the point of view of Birju’s younger brother, Ajay, whose voice is delightfully naive and filled with petty jealousies, hopeless romanticism and a deep and abiding love for the sibling he once admired but now pities and, occasionally, despises. “After the accident, I was glad I might become an only child,” he confesses to God at one point.
Inspired by real events
I heard the author discuss this book very briefly at a Faber fiction showcase earlier in the year. He was smartly dressed and softly spoken, but little did I realise that before he’d finished his five-minute “promo” I’d have tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat.
He started off rather jolly, telling us about how his family moved from Delhi to the USA in the late 1970s, and how everything was new, exciting and filled with perplexing mod-cons — nothing like India.
But then the mood of the room changed as he quietly revealed how his elder brother hit his head on the bottom of a swimming pool one day and never fully recovered. Their new American life, so filled with hope and promise, had changed forever. Family Life is a fictionalised account of that experience.
The book largely charts the lengths Birju’s family go to ensure he gets every opportunity to recover. If that means dealing with a long line of charlatans, religious “freaks” and dodgy “quacks”, then so be it.
But when exorbitant medical costs force the family to nurse him at home, it brings new tensions and stresses to bear. Burji’s mother never loses focus on her son — indeed, she becomes rather one-eyed about it, with unforeseen consequences — while his father loses himself in drink. Meanwhile, Ajay tries to get on with his life as best he can, often by burying his head in a book, so he can avoid thinking about his estranged parents and a brother who gets older but never better.
When an insurance pay out means Birju can be installed in a nursing home, it doesn’t neccessarily makes things easier. When Birju’s mother is introduced at a party as “the woman whose son is in a nursing home” you can practically feel the awkwardness of the situation resonate off the page:
“My son had an accident in a swimming pool,” my mother said. “He’s in a coma.” She said this shyly, as if she were sharing something precious. I became irritated. I thought, No. Birju is not in a coma. He is brain damaged. He is destroyed.
“Can he not talk at all?” the woman asked.
“No,” my mother said. Admitting this, she looked embarrassed.
“If you are in a room with him and sitting next to him, will he not know it?”
“There is no coma,” my father said. “He is not asleep. My son has his eyes open. He can’t walk or talk. My wife says this coma thing because she thinks this sounds better.”
Mrs Kohli smiled. She nodded her head proudly. “See? A parent’s love knows no shore.”
Despite the subject matter, the story is not maudlin. It’s completely free of sentiment and often filled with laugh-out-loud witticisms. For instance, Ajay and his mother tease Burji for not paying attention when they play cards by his bedside, at other times they accuse him of being lazy for never getting out of bed. It might be gallows humour, but it does show the lighter side of human nature and the methods people use to cope at times of great sadness.
As well as being a devastating account of a family plunged into a never-ending crisis, the novel is also a wonderful portrait of immigrant life, American culture and what it is to be an outsider — in all senses of the word.
It is hugely perceptive about so many different issues — dramatic change, unconditional love, friendship, sibling rivalry, marriage and grief, to name but a few — and does it with such a lightness of touch that it’s difficult not to emerge unaltered from such an intelligent and inspiring read. If nothing else, Family Life is a book about hope — of chasing it, holding it and never letting go — even if it might not work its magic in the same way it did for that family in the Louis Theroux documentary.
Family Life will be published in the UK on 1 May.
UPDATE: A couple of hours after posting this review, the London Review Bookshop tweeted a link to it. When I thanked them for doing so, I discovered that the shop is hosting an event with Akhil Sharmer and David Sedaris at the end of this month. To find out more, or to book tickets, please visit the LRB website.