The Family Took Shape by Shashi Bhat

June 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Family Took Shape is Shashi Bhat’s debut novel. Bhat was shortlisted for the 2012 Journey Prize with her story “Why I Read Beowulf,” a funny–almost stand-up comedy–story about teenagers. The novel also focuses on children and teenagers, but with a very different tone–gentler, definitely, but still with flashes of comic relief. The two pieces share an interest in investigating human interactions and motivation.

When The Family Took Shape opens, Mira and her brother Ravi, six and eight, live with their mother; their father has recently died. Bhat takes us through Mira’s life from her early days of being bullied by a school friend right through to adulthood and a significant trip (her first) that she takes to India. It sounds like a fairly typical Bildungsroman, and, in the sense that we follow Mira as she goes through school, navigates the shark-infested waters of female friendship, discovers boys and thinks about her own wedding, it is.

What makes this different from the usual growing up tale is Mira’s particular situation, that of growing up with an autistic brother.  I don’t doubt that anyone who has lived with an autistic child would tell you they have learnt a huge amount from that experience; it’s the framing of the child as little more than one long continuous Chicken Soup teachable moment that frustrates me. Thankfully Bhat has taken the trouble to think about Ravi himself—a boy who struggles at school, a boy everyone wants to solve, a boy who is occasionally betrayed by those closest to him (at a wedding a teenaged Mira pretends she isn’t related to him), a boy who has talents and passions and flaws and problems just like everybody else. The Family Took Shape spends a lot of time examining what it’s like to be the sibling of an autistic child, and it feels honest in its embarrassment, protectiveness and teenage sulkiness. Mira has to find a way to feel comfortable in her own skin before she can truly support her brother.

Mira was born in Canada, although her mother did not move to Canada until she was an adult. The novel’s (and Mira’s) acceptance of both Indian and Canadian culture, with the two able to co-exist side by side, has a very Canadian feel to it, both as an actual, lived illustration of the mosaic rather than the melting pot, but also as a culture-wide commitment to it. For Mira personally, the two cultures rarely conflict and she travels easily between them—or perhaps through both simultaneously.  She does, however, notice that others do not share her ease, whether it’s her mother’s unfamiliarity with the nuances of Canadian life or the subtle racism she experiences at school. The wedding preparations explicitly demonstrate conflict between the two cultures, and this section works really well to show Mira as a person influenced in some areas of her life by her Canadian surroundings and education, and in others by her Indian heritage and familial values.

Because Mira is a child and a teenager for a large part of the novel, she doesn’t always consider other people’s thoughts and feelings except insofar as they relate to her. I do wish a little space had been made, somehow, for her to reflect at greater length on her mother’s situation. The intriguing ending might partially answer this question, but I would have liked to see more of Mira’s thoughts on it, particularly as they might have changed over the years. The Family Took Shape is a quiet, tender novel that finds new ways to look at potentially fraught topics like the immigrant experience and autism.

Review copy.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

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