Akhil Sharma: "I'm not sure it was the right investment of my time". Photograph: Tim Knox/Guardian News & Media.
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The son also rises: Family Life by Akhil Sharma

It took Akhil Sharma 13 years to write his second novel: a bildungsroman with a family tragedy at its core. It was worth the wait, writes Philip Maughan.

For 13 years, Akhil Sharma failed to tell his life story. Born in Delhi in 1971, he moved with his family to New York when he was eight years old, was accepted into Princeton University at 18 and later became an investment banker. Soon he was earning an annual bonus of over half a million dollars. He was, to use an expression clipped from Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March, “set up like the July fourth rocket”, powered by raw intelligence and the immigrant’s determination to succeed.

The same is true of Ajay Mishra, Sharma’s fictional counterpart in his new “autobiographical novel”, Family Life. For both Ajay and Sharma, tragedy powers achievement. When Sharma was ten, his older brother Anup (named Birju in the book) suffered a horrific accident. It changed Sharma’s family irrevocably and became the emotional source of his honest, steel-eyed fiction.

The author’s debut, An Obedient Father, was published to great acclaim in 2001. It told the story of a corrupt education official, Ram Karan, who raped his daughter when she was 12 and lives cooped up with her and her daughter Asha in a Delhi slum. Its genius was to render such monstrosity intelligible, keeping the reader within range of forgiveness and compassion as Ram awaits his overdue punishment.

“I remember Gary Shteyngart saying to me that there was a sense that I was going to be the one,” Sharma recently told the Guardian, “but then I just vanished.” In the 13 years that followed, Sharma wrote and rewrote his second book, struggling to find a language with which to tell an equally upsetting story, much closer to his own experience. “I’m not sure it was the right investment of my time,” he wrote earlier this year, on the day the book was finally published in the US.

Ajay is constantly overshadowed by Bir­ju, who is doted on by their mother, Shuba, and has been accepted to study at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. The dynamic within this tenement-dwelling Indian-American family shifts, however, when Birju jumps into a swimming pool and cracks his head on its concrete floor. He dwells at the bottom, stunned, for three minutes, only to emerge catastrophically brain-damaged and confined to a hospital bed for the rest of his life.

In An Obedient Father, the Karan family served as a microcosm for all that troubled India in the early 1990s: corruption, inefficiency, political unrest. Likewise in America, the Mishras acquire a kind of symbolism, battling the nation’s ills on a domestic scale: from avarice and addiction to the dire state of health care for the poor. “It was as if we represented something,” Ajay recalls, “love of family, sacrificing for others.” The Mishras, renowned for their piety and insight, are consulted by their Indian neighbours. “This is love, animal,” a Hindu woman scolds her son, who wants to eat meat “like the blacks, like the Spanish”, as Ajay sits and dutifully rubs his brother’s feet.

In the end the family collapses under the weight of Birju’s needs. They are visited by a series of “miracle workers” who dance, pray and coat the paralysed teen in turmeric powder, all the while believing him to be in a coma. This is a lie told by Shuba Mishra so that the family will not be cast out from the “community” – though eventually they are, at least until young Ajay is accepted into Princeton. Mr Mishra drinks so much he risks being fired from his job as a government clerk, while Shuba vents her disappointment at her second son. “If Birju were all right, I would tell you to get out. I’d tell you to leave right now,” she says. “Go with your stupid grades and die.” Shocking as it is, amid the bitterness there lurks a sharp, wry comedy. “I was not going to let her have the last word,” Ajay decides. “How can they be stupid when they’re so high?”

The anecdotal quality of the book aligns it with tough, funny memoirs by Dave Eggers, Jeanette Winterson and David Sedaris. The style, however – neat, spare, almost without texture – owes more to Chekhov and Hemingway. Outright metaphors are rare. When they do occur, they magnificently capture a child’s-eye view of things. When Ajay first sees his brother in critical condition at the hospital, Birju looks “like he was in the middle of many clotheslines”.

As the Mishras watch their second son’s ascension into an alien world of wealth and status, Shuba whispers to Birju: “Your brother can eat pain. He can sit all day at his desk and eat pain.” For all the anguish that has defined his journey, there are moments of exquisite tenderness as well.

“Brother,” Ajay says as he bathes Birju, “I have never met anyone as lazy as you.” His mother laughs, casting an approving smile on them both. “Tell him, ‘I’m not lazy,’” she says, “‘I’m a king.’”

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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