Title: Family Life
Author: Akhil Sharma
Genre: Literary Fiction
Number of Pages: 219
When Ajay’s family immigrates from India to the U.S., they have no idea that their lives will be changed forever by a tragic event. Ajay’s older brother Birju is gifted and about to get into a prestigious college when he is severely brain-injured in a diving accident. His mom prays for a miracle as dad starts descending into alcoholism and their lives revolve entirely around Birju’s care.
Angry and frustrated, Ajay must cope with the reality that he’ll grow up while Birju spends the rest of his life trapped in stasis. He becomes desperate for affirmation from others and feels unwanted by his parents, who are each left broken from what they have experienced. Family Life is a dark and contemplative novel written in a literary but straightforward style, from young Ajay’s perspective from childhood until he becomes an adult and goes to college.
It packs a lot into a fairly short book and the characterizations feel raw and real, though none of the characters (including Ajay) were particularly likable. I liked how flawed he was and how the book so skillfully conveyed his anger and frustration as well as his conflicted feelings about his brother. His family was dysfunctional (to put it nicely) before Birju’s accident but afterwards they pretty much fall apart.
I’m against ‘mercy-killing’ of the disabled but I couldn’t help thinking that if the old Birju had a choice, he would have wanted to be dead. The descriptions of his total helplessness (soiled sheets, bedsores, and slowly atrophied limbs) were hard to read about, but it gave you a strong sense of what the family was going through, especially considering the bright and aware boy Birju used to be.
Family Life is not a happy book, but I raced through it, utterly captivated by the characters and their struggles. I picked it out because it said on Goodreads that it had a ‘child narrator’ (it doesn’t, the book is told in retrospect by Ajay as an adult) and I’m interested in that kind of thing but even though it wasn’t what I was expecting I’m glad I read it.