Gaby Wood in Telegraph:
Akhil Sharma’s deadpan autobiographical novel, Family Life, ends with a kind of beginning. The narrator has taken his beautiful new girlfriend to a resort hotel. As they lounge by the pool and she leans against him, he feels happier and happier. “The happiness,” Sharma writes, “was almost heavy.” And then comes the last line: “That was when I knew I had a problem.” When I ask Sharma how he’s feeling, the morning after he has won the £40,000 Folio Prize, he responds with a brief smile, a shrug and a flat-toned explanation of his tendency to pan the world for disappointment. “My mind is like a police scanner,” he says, “wondering what’s wrong.” The first thing he felt when he heard he’d won, he says, was shame.
If that sounds melodramatic, or inappropriately comic, the book itself goes some way towards explaining the background. Sharma’s novel (his second) tells the story of an Indian family who move to New Jersey to begin what they hope will be a better life. Just after the elder brother is granted a place at a distinguished high school in New York, he dives into a swimming pool, hits his head and remains underwater for long enough to provoke a coma and lifelong brain damage. All of this happened to Sharma’s family, and the story is told from the point of view of the younger sibling – Sharma’s alter ego, Ajay – with all the naive hope and pointed perception of a child. “I wondered if he was dead,” Ajay thinks when his aunt says she has to go to the hospital. “This last was thrilling. If he was dead, I would get to be the only son.” Ajay lives through the wreckage of his parents’ aspirations: his mother’s misery, his father’s alcoholism, the daily burden of caring for his brother. “Daddy, I am so sad,” he says at one point. “You’re sad?” comes the furious response. “I want to hang myself every day.” The book is so funny you almost feel guilty for laughing – some sort of alchemical transfer, one presumes, of Sharma’s shame into fictional gold. When his mother asks for a hearing aid, Ajay’s father replies: “Why? If by mistake some good news does come for you, I’ll write it down.”