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…