His novel Family Life is closely based on a real-life traumatic childhood experienceby Sameer Rahim / March 24, 2015 / Leave a comment
Last night the 2015 Folio Prize, worth £40,000, was awarded to Akhil Sharma for his second novel Family Life. It beat off both the better-known favourites, Ali Smith’s How to be Both and Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster. And while some at the awards ceremony at the St Pancras Hotel in North London counted them unlucky, few begrudged Sharma his victory for what is an extraordinary novel.
Sharma, a Delhi-born American writer born in 1971, spoke to me on the phone the day after his award. When his name was announced, he thought he had misheard. “My fear was embarrassing myself, and then I went up and felt a lot of shame. I always get this response when something good happens. Part of me is anxious, part of me says what does this mean.” After spending nearly 13 years writing the book, did he not feel vindicated? “I never feel non-vindicated,” he replied, “but I’m glad it’s going well.”
Family Life emerged from a real-life childhood trauma. Shortly after Sharma’s family moved from India to America in the late 1970s, his elder brother was badly injured in a swimming pool accident. The author’s teenage years were dominated by his parents’ struggle to cope with a brain-damaged child. Sharma decided to write his story as a novel rather than straight non-fiction because, in his own words, “one can be more honest in fiction than in a memoir.” Freed from the restriction of writing what literally happened (if such a thing were possible), Sharma concentrates instead on turning emotional truth into satisfying art.
Early on in the novel, Ajay, Sharma’s fictional double, lives with his parents and elder brother Birju in Delhi. The family exchanges are saltily humorous in the manner of VS Naipaul. Ajay’s father brushes his teeth until they bleed, before commenting on death’s inevitability. “Yes, yes, beat drums,” says his wife sarcastically. “Tell the newspapers, too. Make sure everyone knows this thing you have discovered.” Their conversation subtly foreshadows the tragedy to come. After Birju’s accident in America, his mother tries to keep his true condition a secret. She prefers to say her son is in a coma rather than permanently brain-damaged, because it’s easier for people to feel sympathy for a child who might eventually recover. The whole book is, in Sharma’s words, “shot through” with comedy that turns to sadness. “One moment is tragic, the other is humorous, sometimes in the same moment,” he tells me.
Birju’s accident is not described. Instead, Ajay tells us that he got the news while absorbed in the television show Gilligan’s Island. He says he wanted to keep on watching—naturally for a boy of his age, but we also sense the older narrator wishing his younger self could remain a castaway in an innocent fantasy world. When he gets to the fateful swimming pool, he confesses: “I wondered if he was dead. This last was thrilling. If he was dead, I would get to be the only son.” All of Ajay’s least creditable thoughts are recorded. Later, he will exploit his brother’s story to appear more interesting to his classmates—and to encourage a girl to kiss him. “I’ve never had an issue about being truthful,” said Sharma. “The best way to love someone is to love the whole of them. If I were to only look at your good parts, I would be doing a disservice to your humanity.”
Though its subject matter is nightmarish, Family Life is balanced and even hopeful. As the chair of the Folio judging panel William Fiennes said last night, this is “a masterful novel of distilled complexity: about catastrophe and survival; attachment and independence.” Its descriptions of what it’s like to look after a disabled child are so accurate that, to Sharma’s satisfaction, it’s being taught to medical students in America. The rationale being that the novel will help doctors better understand what their patients and their families go through when they leave hospital.
The mastery Fiennes referred to came at quite a cost to the author. The novel is only 210 pages long but took 13 years to write—and re-write. Speaking last night, Sharma said the process was like “chewing stones.” He wrote the novel from multiple perspectives—including the boys’ parents—before settling on the brother as first-person narrator. Though much of the material about the parents has been cut, Sharma told me that he knows exactly what they are doing in the house at any one moment. “The presence of them is still there.”
Sharma’s real parents, though, have not read the book. They looked after their disabled son for 30 years until his death three years ago, and are just beginning to live again. Sharma said: “I told my mother I was going to write it and she said ‘Akhil, just make me look good.’ And when I told my father, and asked if he wanted to read it, he said ‘Why? I was there!’” When I asked Sharma whether his brother’s death helped him finish Family Matters, he was equivocal. Solving the narrative difficulties was a technical problem, not an emotional one, he said. Still, in grappling with the past through fiction, he seems to have brought some resolution to his feelings about his “poor brother,” to whom Family Life is dedicated.