Hailed as a "supreme storyteller" (Philadelphia Inquirer) for his "cunning, dismaying and beautifully conceived" fiction (New York Times), Akhil Sharma is possessed of a narrative voice "as hypnotic as those found in the pages of Dostoyevsky" (The Nation). In his highly anticipated second novel, Family Life, he delivers a story of astonishing intensity and emotional precision.
We meet the Mishra family in Delhi in 1978, where eight-year-old Ajay and his older brother Birju play cricket in the streets, waiting for the day when their plane tickets will arrive and they and their mother can fly across the world and join their father in America. America to the Mishras is, indeed, everything they could have imagined and more: When automatic glass doors open before them, they feel that surely they must have been mistaken for somebody important. Pressing an elevator button and the elevator closing its doors and rising, they have a feeling of power at the fact that the elevator is obeying them. Life is extraordinary until tragedy strikes, leaving one brother severely brain-damaged and the other lost and virtually orphaned in a strange land. Ajay, the family’s younger son, prays to a God he envisions as Superman, longing to find his place amid the ruins of his family’s new life.
Heart-wrenching and darkly funny, Family Life is a universal story of a boy torn between duty and his own survival.
©2014 Akhil Sharma (P)2014 Audible, Inc.
"Outstanding… Every page is alive and surprising, proof of [Sharma’s] huge, unique talent." (David Sedaris)
"Narrator Vikas Adam's skill with accents is considerable - when he reenacts dialogue, in particular, this recording dazzles. Characters become real, and the listener is fully engaged with the story. At the same time, there are long stretches wherein exposition may lull the listener into distraction; however, these observations, which contrast the Mishra family's new lives in America with their old lives in India, are integral to the story. Furthermore, the quietness of Adam's delivery makes the tragic turns of the plot even more affecting. This audiobook may not be for everyone, but the performance is solid." (AudioFile)
I'm an audiobook addict and blog about books at The Reading Date. My favorite genres are YA, New Adult, Fiction & Memoirs.
Akhil Sharma’s Family Life is a mostly autobiographical novel that tells the story of the Mishra family who immigrate to the US from India in the 70s in pursuit of a better life. Their welcome to the states is short-lived, however. A tragic accident soon occurs that shatters their hopes and dreams.
Family Life is a slim audiobook, but this is not a book I could read in one sitting, personally. The Mishra family story is emotionally draining, and though there are lighter moments sprinkled into the narrative, mainly this book just made me sad.
The story is that the Mishra family is starting to adjust to life in the US, and their eldest son Birju is thriving and accepted to the Bronx High School of Science. A tragic swimming pool accident leaves Birju severely brain damaged, and his younger brother Ajay and his parents are left reeling.
The point of view of Family Life is from Birju’s brother Ajay’s perspective. We follow Ajay from age 8 to 40 and see how his family collapses after the accident. Ajay’s dad turns to alcohol, and his mother devotes her life to caring for Birju. Ajay is kind of left to his own devices in a new country and new school. He has few friends and is bullied, but finds his way through books and writing, and achieves academic success. Though even his success is tinged with sadness, as Birju never got the chance to reach his own goals.
Akhil Sharma packs a punch with this novel, and makes you feel the impact of the family tragedy straight to the gut. Sharma plays with time over the novel, as Ajay starts out a kid trying to find himself, to an academic superstar, to an accomplished adult. It’s somewhat easier to digest this story through Ajay’s eyes, which brings some lightness to the situation. The book touches on race, culture, alcoholism, depression, and family and gives you a lot to think about.
Narrator Vikas Adam conveys Ajay’s character from a high voiced 8-year-old to a serious 40-year-old man, and his emotional ups and downs over the years. The audiobook makes the story feel even more real, as Adam brings Ajay’s parents’ struggles to life. Adam performs the novel with an authentic sounding Indian accent, and makes you feel a connection to the characters. However, even though this audiobook is just under 6 hours long I had to take frequent breaks from listening because the subject is such a downer. I have listened to Vikas Adam before in Katie McGarry’s Crash Into You and look forward to hearing more from him.
Very moving and honest story. Despite being a short book, I was able to bond with the characters and understood them. Being Indian myself, I was able to relate with the general attitudes and characters.
Clear diction, authentic accents, tone of voice very much in line with the sombre and honest mood of the story.
Addicted to books, but especially to audiobooks!
***Warning, this review contain spoilers*****
For such a short read this novel was very intense and powerful. This novel is elegant and beautiful. It’s also dark and tragic, but it has its share of light and funny moments.
Indian-American author Akhil Sharma has been described as a “supreme storyteller” and after listening to this novel I can see why. This is story about immigrants,religion and traditions, tragedy, race, and ultimately about the pursuit of happiness gone wrong.
Family Life begins in the present moment and then flashes back .The novel is written in 1st person narrative, Ajay, the younger of two brothers, is the narrator.
There’s not strong plot on this book, it mostly narrates events as they happen.
At the beginning of the book I got a little confused and thought that perhaps I was listening to a memoir and not to a work of fiction. Later on I read an article that mentions that Mr. Sharma indeed wrote this book as a semi-autobiographical account of his own family experience coming to America.
The novel follows The Mishras, an Indian family that emigrated to America in the late 1970’s.
When we first meet the family, they are still in Delhi, waiting for their planes tickets to arrive so they can start their new lives in America.
When they arrived in New Jersey, their father is waiting for them. At the beginning, both 8 year-old Ajay, and his older brother Birju, are amazed at what they find in their new country: elevators, doors that open automatically, they even find carpets thrilling. America is all they had expected and more.
Our narrator Ajay is smart, and inquisitive. He can also be, stubborn and even mean sometimes. But it is in Birju, the older of the two brothers, where the family has put their expectations for a brighter future. When Birju is accepted into a prestigious high school, everything seems to be going well as this confirms their hopes that Birju is destined to do great things.
What happens instead is that tragedy strikes when Birju hits his head diving into a pool. He is severely brain-damaged and his future is changed forever all within the span of 3 minutes. He’ll never recover and fulfil his dreams. He’ll never talk, walk or recognize anybody.
At first 10-year old Ajay doesn’t seem to realize the gravity of the situation and he casually muses, that if Birju were dead, “I would get to be the only son.”
After this horrible incident occurs,the dynamic of the family is completely shaken. Ajay finds himself extremely lonely as his parents, and especially his mother, is consumed with the idea that her son will somehow recovered. Besides Ajay, Mrs. Mishra is the most important character in this novel. She is a resilient, strong woman, we can sense her profound grief, and how she chooses to deal with it. She insists that Birju is in a “coma”, because she’s not ready to accept the reality that her son is brain-dead.
She invites numerous “miracle workers” with the hope that one of them will perform a miracle and bring her lost son back. It’s heartbreaking to see her get lost and her identity in the process.
Times passes and life for the Mishras revolves around taking care of Birju and attending and providing for his medical needs. The parents fight a lot. The father becomes an alcoholic.
Ajay has conversations with God; he feels guilty for being the one person of the family that still seems to have luck on his side. I found these ruminations he has with God, charming, funny and authentic. He tries cajoling God into making deals to improve things for his brother and himself.
Ajay also discovers literature, this serves as a saving grace for him in the middle of such much despair. I found the passage where he studies Hemingway’s style of writing truly wonderful and poignant.
This novel shows how unsettling experiencing a tragedy such as this can be to any family, and how it can make any family deeply dysfunctional. But there are also beautiful moments, especially between Ajay and his mom, in which they put aside hostility and hurt and come together to take care of Birju and each other.
I found admirable to see how the Mishras enjoyed the support of other Indian families. Their immigrant community plays an important role in helping them throughout the years.
And of course, Ajay grows up; falls in love, applies for college, makes plans for his future. When he eventually leaves his home, he gets a chance to at least try to have a normal life.
Ajay and his family continue to assimilate more and more into the American way of life. He becomes an investment banker and accomplishes financial success. But towards the end of the novel we see how very broken he is. At the end the question is, was the prize for his success too high? We have a strong feeling that something didn't go the way it was supposed to.
Family Life ends when Ajay, in the present, comes to a strong, very sudden realization. As to whether or not I found the ending of the story satisfying , As to whether or not I found the ending of the novel satisfying, I believe the author put it best when he said ““to me, the book still feels undone”.
Whether or not you are an immigrant (like me) or not, I think that many will relate with this story and the difficulties of adjusting to a new life, a new place, a new language, a new beginning. In that sense,this is a pretty universal story.
The Narrator of the audiobook, Vikas Adam did a great job bringing this novel and all its characters to life for me. He was particularly skillful at switching between Indian and American accents, both for female & male characters, which can be quite tricky.
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