Whether Shashi Bhat’s debut novel is, as the author suggests, a “distorted projection” of her own life or an entirely imagined world is an open question. What is clear is that The Family Took Shape makes one grand, universal statement: families will screw you over. Put more elegantly: no one escapes the tyranny of bloodlines or the traumas of childhood. No one.
We first encounter this particular family through Mira, a South Asian girl from the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill who lives with her mother and autistic brother, Ravi. Mira’s experiences, while familiar enough for the average Canadian reader, remain grounded in a distinctly South Asian context. Her bully, for example, is a Chinese girl who confounds Mira’s preconceived gender (and, more subtly, ethnic) expectations of schoolyard tormentors.
But it’s Ravi whose many struggles preoccupy both Mira’s consciousness and Bhat’s narrative. Bhat sustains a thoughtful, unvarnished presentation of the brother/sister bond through different life stages and a range of emotions, from ambivalence to rage to unconditional love.
The novel is structured much like a photo album, with isolated (but largely chronological) snapshots accumulating until a larger portrait emerges. There’s much to recommend in this approach: it mirrors the way we drift in and out of the lives of friends and neighbours, and efficiently undercuts the omniscience of the narrator. But it also requires that all the pictures be equally compelling, and I found early parts of the book uneven, and familiar to the point of being derivative. Is there a South Asian narrative that doesn’t feature the meddling, matchmaking aunty? And can an Indian person exist in a novel separate from mentions of spices and frying pans?
As if to make up for the slow burn at the outset, the book’s remaining two-thirds, largely about the lives of Ravi and Mira as adults, are original and emotionally fearless. When, in the final chapter, the novel explores some genetic possibilities about Mira’s own child, it’s hard not to share the character’s fears and heartaches. This quietly confident novel may have structural imbalances and a propensity for treading much-covered ground, but it ultimately works on an instinctive, subliminal level. Much like family ties, in fact.