You could call this novel Ajay Mishra (the narrator and protagonist)’s bildungsroman, except that he doesn’t reach his apogee because of a pivotal event. In fact, the pivotal event—the swimming pool accident that leaves his older brother, Birju, brain-damaged—occurs early. Rather, Ajay simply wins a war of attrition, where his diligence at school gets him a scholarship to Princeton and a path to better prospects in the future. The author, Akhil Sharma, paints an indelible portrait of an immigrant family caught in the incubus of a dream gone sour in this finely observed and wrenchingly heartfelt novel.
The Mishras are a lower-middle class Indian family living in New Delhi in the 1970s. The father works at a mundane job as an accountant and feels that society doesn’t respect him. He sees an opportunity to settle down in Queens, New York, as a way to get the world to pay him attention. At first, the family does well navigating the cultural minefields of immigrant life in the New World. Then tragedy strikes in the forms of a ghastly swimming pool accident to the older son, and very quickly the family recalibrates their priorities—or at least the mother does, because the father takes to alcohol and anger, while young Ajay uses pretended normalcy as a way to cope. The heart of the story is Ajay’s take on the effects of his brother’s accident on the family, and this the author sketches in sharply detailed incidents written in short, staccato sentences putatively modeled after the protagonist’s role model, the author Ernest Hemingway.
The strength of the novel lies in poignantly capturing an immigrant family’s dreams and their aftermath. While what happens to the older Mishra son is unique and perhaps not quite generalizable, the book will capture the attention of those who have met roadblocks on their journey.