Category Archives: Folio Prize
Three minutes. In that time the Mishra family’s hopes of a new future are demolished. They’d left Delhi in search of a better life in New York and, although they now live in a cramped apartment it is one that has carpets and indoor plumbing. Eldest son Birju wins a coveted place at Bronx High School of Science and is seen as a role model among other aspirational Indian immigrant parents. But when he dives into a swimming pool and hits his head on the bottom, the family’s great American dream dissolve into a nightmare of brain-damage, alcoholism and marital discord.
Relating this tale of woe in Akhil Shama’s Family Life is the youngest son of the Mishra family, eight year old Ajay. He’s a bit of a rascal who loves to make up stories to impress other kids of his age. “Everybody in America has their own speedboat” he boasts to boys in Delhi even though he has no idea if this is true. After his brother’s accident, he concocts more and more fabulous stories about Birju’s condition. It’s partly his way of making a connection, of trying to fit in with an alien environment in which he is one of the very few Indians in his school. But it’s also his way of expressing the complex and conflicting emotions stirred up by the accident.
Whenever I told someone about Birju, I felt compelled to lie about his wonderfulness. Because we had received so little money in the settlement, which meant Birju was an ordinary boy, lying seemed the only way to explain that what had happened to him was awful, was the worst thing in the world. birdie i said had rescued a woman trapped in a burning car. Birju had had a great talent for music and a photographic memory. ….. I concocted the ideal brother. These fantasies felt real. They excited me. They made me love Birju…. They also cultivated rage at the loss…
As Ajay gets older the conflicting emotions about his brother never completely go away Every moment of his mother’s day is devoted to caring for Birju while his father takes to drink. In their grief they often lose sight of the needs of the younger boy. One cheerless Christmas Day, Ajay erupts, sobbing to his parents that he too deserves something, for enduring — at least some pizza. “I am so sad,” Ajay confides to his father one evening. “You’re sad?” his father responds; “I want to hang myself every day.” Coming home from school one day he is desperate to tell his parents he was ranked first in his class. But all he gets from his mother is “very good’, not pausing even from a moment in her manipulation of the wasted limbs of his brother.
I had been feeling proud as well as guilty but now I felt a collapse. And then I became disgusted with myself for my vanity in wanting to be thought special…
This is the aspect of the novel that resonated most with me. Much of the early part of Family Life feels like well trodden ground as Akhil Sharma lays out what life is like for new immigrants. Look how different things are in America the book says although we already know that from works by other transplanted authors. Where Family Life felt fresh was in its treatment of Anjay’s guilt at being the surviving brother and the creative ways in which he tries to find an outlet – trying to become an author by meticulously adopting Hemingway’s writing style or daydreaming about conversations in which God gives him advice while dressed in a Clark Kent style cardigan. This is the emotional heart of the novel, yet its impact comes from the often understated manner in which Anjay describes his feelings.
“A year had gone by since Birju’s accident. My father began shaving him. The first time he did this was one afternoon. My mother and I stood and watched as he put shaving cream on Birju’s cheeks … Birju lay there calmly as my father lathered him. I thought of how Birju had wanted to be a doctor. It seemed unfair that something like this could happen and the world go on.”
Unfair and yet the world does go on since ultimately Family Life is a story about endurance and survival. Anjay achieves the glittering career denied to his brother, proving that the American dream can become reality though for the Mishra family it materialises only after they are brought to the brink of loneliness and despair.
Family Life is Akhil Sharma’s second novel and is partly autobiographical. By the time he handed over his manuscript to the publishers he was nine years overdue. Their patience was rewarded when Sharma won the 2015 Folio Prize with this novel.
In the Approaches by Nicola Barker is one of those books where the author seems to be having so much fun they’ve forgotten about their readers. Amusing in snatches it was also frustratingly confusing. By the end I had no clearer idea of its purpose than I had at the beginning.
I started reading it having heard of Nicola Barker’s name as ‘one to watch’. She’s steadily attracted attention ever since she was named as one of the 20 Best Young British Novelists by Granta in 2005 and her last novel The Yips was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The announcement that her latest novel, In the Approaches, was nominated for the 2015 Folio Prize motivated me to get to know this writer.
I knew she had a reputation for somewhat off beam plots and characters but I wasn’t prepared for a novel that lurched so wildly from knock about humour (the central male character ends up with a very embarrassing medical condition) to the bizarre (a conversation conducted naked inside a small sauna perched on the edge of a crumbling cliff) and unrequited love, taking in mysticism and links to IRA bomb plots along the way.
Set in a picturesque coastal village of Pett Level “in the approaches of Rye Bay and Hastings” it features Mr Franklin D Huff, an ex journalist who arrives to take up temporary residence in the village. He’s there to uncover the truth about events 14 years ago when his former wife, a world famous photographer, lived in the Levels and had an affair with a mural artist who may or may not have been involved with the IRA. Huff’s arrival in the village stirs up the murky past, particularly for his landlord Miss Carla Hahn. She was once nanny to the artist’s daughter, a half-Aboriginal thalidomide girl who developed a reputation as a visionary until her early death. Carla is desperate to preserve intact the girl’s achievements and her legacy.
The story unfolds slowly with many digressions including two pages of possible solutions to hiccups and a LOT of sections of dialogue which don’t advance the plot much. Most of the dramatic events seem to happen off stage and we discover them only through the somewhat clumsy device of conversations or interior monologues. Huff and Hahn alternate as the main narrators, but we also get a few chapters seen through the perspective of a neurotic parrot (supposedly these were meant to be funny but it was one conceit too many for me). More amusing was the character of Clifford the milkman, frustrated because his love of Carla Hahn goes unacknowledged and because his destiny is to be the minor character in the novel, a little bit of local colour or just “A tragic afterthought dreamed up by the mean cow of an Author to add that tiny bit of extra depth, a light gloss of policy – a nice, reliable pinch of snuff…. to the ‘main’ the important, the real, the actually-grown-up-three-dimensional relationship.”
He talks back to the author, complaining that she’s going to make him act totally out of character before killing him off quickly. He also makes some snide comments about her previous books : “She killed someone in another novel (forget the name of it, offhand) with a frozen, miniature butter pat and then she won a prize. A prize! A big money prize! What were they thinking?!”
Beyond the humour, Barker seems to be striving to make a point about people like Carla Hahn who are stuck, in the metaphorical ‘approaches’, circling around life rather than engaging it it fully. Even her house is on the fringes, each year getting closer to the sea as the cliff beneath it crumbles. By the end a more profound tone emerges as Carla ‘is found’ and realises that the only certainty in life is love. “The way it flew. The way it burns. Almost senselessly. Until everything is devoured. Everything is consumed. And then it dies and is gone. Just the ashes remaining. A pointless little pile of exquisite, feather-light flakes of depleted carbon.”
Why Barker left it so late to give us something worth reflecting upon, I can’t imagine. “Does she ever get around to telling a story?” asks one character. “I can’t seriously imagine her Average Reader would approve… they’ll all say she’s losing the plot.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself. Having reached the end of this shambling romantic comedy I was no nearer understanding the point of it, than I was at the beginning.
In the Approaches is published in UK by HarperCollins UK, Fourth Estate. My copy was provided by NetGalley in return for an honest review.