As with Sharma’s first novel, there is very little plot in the traditional sense. Rather, there are warring, hidden interiors, spaces rendered without melodrama. The first is within the walls of the family home, the ruin that unfolds there, a ruin that includes the kind of comedy that family life, whatever its degree of fraughtness, is nonetheless never without. And the second, and essential, interior is that of the younger son, a child trying to convey his guilt and sorrow and rage as he is all but overlooked by his parents, who resent this healthy son tasked with washing his prodigal brother, the all-but-dead son becoming, for the family, a point of gravity infinitely dense, one that absorbs all hope, all light.

As Sharma wrote in an essay for The New Yorker, “All of this, more or less, happened to my family, and to go back and relive the events was awful.” And as awful as “Family Life” absolutely is, it is also remarkable for its tenderness, the compassion Sharma manages to forge for all these characters to whom he draws us, movingly, near.

With that success, Sharma set to writing a third novel. He had tried to write it before. But it wasn’t going anywhere. The material was difficult, as it was for his first two novels. His brief, dense novels took him a decade to write. Why should the new one be any different? But life circumstances had changed. He and his wife of 16 years were divorcing, and Sharma was in a state of emotional chaos. As is the case for many writers, writing is a way of rooting oneself to a world that otherwise shakes. Sharma needed to write but could not. And so, to confirm his sense that he was still a writer, he opened the file for his first novel, hoping to find not inspiration but confederacy with an earlier, abler self.

Unfortunately, too often, while he recognized the book’s frequent merits, particularly the intensity of emotion he was able to capture on the page, rereading it confirmed his initial sense of the book’s shortcomings. Yes, he was pleased with many of the sentences. Still, he found the novel difficult to read. At times, the storytelling was ham-handed, and some of the characters were confusing. The greatest failure, in his view, was that he hadn’t adequately evoked the inner lives of the daughter the father rapes and of her child, whom the father molests.

And so he began to fiddle in the file of the original book, changing the beginning, reimagining its movement, simplifying sentences or cutting them altogether. In the novel’s first version, the motor of plot is made to turn over in the very first line: “I needed to force money from Father Joseph, and it made me nervous.” Onstage at the Hollins literary festival where I met Sharma, he spoke about that first sentence: “I began the novel in this way largely to get the reader hooked. There’s nothing as wonderful as a fight to get people interested. Somebody could be performing ‘Hamlet’ up here,” Sharma said, gesturing to the stage, and then continued, “If two people in the back of the audience begin punching each other, we all turn around and look at the idiots punching each other.” The original opening sentence makes it seem as though money and violence will be the center of the novel’s plot. And yet, this is not the fight that the novel wages. In Jarrellian terms, this is what is wrong with the book.

“The way that I think of this new version versus the older one,” Sharma told the audience, “is sort of like the older one was made out of springs and metal and tightened screws, and this is made out of polymer. You know it’s a little bit like airplanes. Airplane accidents used to be more common because planes just weren’t able to fly enough above the cloud cover, but then, as new technology came, as airplanes became lighter and lighter, it became possible for them to last much higher up.” He thought of the new version, he went on, “as made out of polymer versus metal. It’s just lighter, and because it is lighter, it can do certain things that the other one cannot.”

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