Last night as I was trying to fall asleep, I found myself mulling over this book and its gut-punch of an ending.
(I also spent some time reflecting on Anna Kendrick's meteoric rise in the world of musical films and speculating as to whom she would play in a reboot of Rent, ultimately concluding that she's too fresh-faced and innocent to be cast as anyone but Mark, can't you just picture her in the scarf and glasses, now that's a production I'd like to see, but that's neither here nor there.)
Family Life isn't pleasant to read, particularly. The story is thick with tragedy and guilt and the cruelty of blind chance, and the terse voice of the narrator is at times unbearably blunt. But if the best fiction can tell a story, even a terrible story, and through it somehow reveal something true, truer than the actual depressing truth that's on the local news every night at six o'clock on the dot, then Akhil Sharma has written some damn good fiction.
Narrator Ajay and his older brother Birju move with their parents from India to the US in the 1970s. At first their main concern is adjusting to their new home and making connections with other Indian immigrants, but after Birju suffers a tragic accident, everything changes for the Mishra family. Sharma's prose is spare to the point of childishness, but somehow within those short sentences he's able to capture a stunning array of emotions. The shock of entering a new culture, the bereftness of realizing home is gone forever, the soul-crushing guilt of being the brother who survived childhood unscathed, the suffocating obligation to be a high achiever without taking credit for any accomplishments—it's all here, and it rocked me to my core.
And have I mentioned the ending? Yowza. Sometimes quiet, meditative books like this one are only a slow unraveling of misfortune, and at the end of the roll there's just a brown cardboard tube—no revelation or meaning, however slight. Without giving anything away, Sharma's chosen ending is devastatingly phrased, and just ambiguous enough that it will linger in my brain crannies for a long, long time.