The fastidiousness of the prose serves to distil and focus one’s attention directly on the story.
This might sound like a rather colourless thing to say, but what I like most about Akhil Sharma’s Family Life is the quality of the prose. It is cut, honed and polished to such perfection that every word glitters from every facet and conveys a dozen unsaid things. Every one of those drafts that Sharma wrote over 12 long years before releasing the final version is effort that shows up on every page of this slim volume.
The fastidiousness of the prose serves another important purpose — it distils and focuses our attention directly on the story. The language offers no pretty distractions from the difficult and bleak tale of a young boy who is severely brain damaged after a swimming pool accident, leaving his family to flounder as they seek cures, answers or just comfort. But what saves the book from becoming a relentlessly desolate narrative is the perspective it is told from. Presented from a young boy’s standpoint, it is lit up by the artless honesty of his observations, his innocence, his conversations with God. And in the process it is as much a coming-of-age story as it is a tale of a family’s courage in adversity.
I found the novel’s gaze hauntingly similar to the 15-year-old Christopher’s, the boy with Asperger’s who tells the story in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. In Mark Haddon’s book, Christopher’s complete lack of emotion stems from his savant syndrome; Sharma leaches his book of all emotion as a way of coping with the retelling of an intensely emotional and painful experience. But in the process both books end up moving you tremendously.
Towards the end of the book, after the family has stabilised and can finally have a full-time attendant for their son, Sharma describes coming home one afternoon and finding his parents sitting in lawn chairs in the backyard. He stands and watches them from the kitchen window. That is all the book says, but all that it leaves unsaid can move you to tears.
Sharma has spoken of how hard he had to work to perfect this technique of story-telling, which he calls removing the ‘sensorium’. In other words, taking away all the stuff that writers otherwise give in rich detail to make a scene feel real — sound, smell, sight, texture. Paradoxically, though, for me these sensory images were still there. I could clearly ‘see’ the room where the mother and son lay on a mattress behind the sofa while the father sat drinking and watching a flickering TV set well into the night. What Sharma has removed is not so much the sights and sounds but the adjectival descriptions of these. He does not call it a cold light or a barren room; he just baldly mentions the chair, the floor, the walls. He does not speak of the unbearable stench of vomit on the bedside rug but simply refers to the stain. He holds back feelings to a degree that I have seen best done by J.M. Coetzee in Disgrace. And it left me with the same deep sense of the protagonist’s anguish, made much keener than what a richer description might have achieved.
The technique works its magic elsewhere too, for instance, when Sharma describes the bullying that he and the other Indian boys are subjected to at school. Racism can be a fraught experience to describe, but the tales told here are chilling in their simple cruelty.
Most tellingly, the book manages almost miraculously to never lose its sense of humour. The miracle cure workers, the bhajan sessions, the Indians who convert his brother and mother to demi-gods, the scenes where he must “inspire” other Indian children because he comes first in class — these are rich with a dry, quiet absurdity. Sharma has pulled off quite a feat with this one; it promises to propel him straight into the awards lists.