BOOK CLUB – The Last Brother

Welcome to BOOK CLUB, which I run with co-conspirator Nicole from Linus’s Blanket. Today we will be chatting about The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, which was released at the beginning of February from Graywolf Press (website | twitter | facebook). For those of you reading this post, please remember that this discussion is likely to contain spoilers.

Here is the synopsis of the book I wrote for my review:

In 1944, the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean is somewhat removed from the rest of the world, enough that a nine year-old boy would not know that the rest of the world had been embroiled in a bitter war. Of course, even without knowledge of the war, Raj has a very painful life of his own, growing up in a small, poor village with a violently alcoholic father, and losing his two brothers to a storm. His life is difficult enough that things actually seem to be looking up with Raj is hospitalized at the prison his father works for – the only hospital facility around – and meets David. Raj doesn’t understand why David and so many other light skinned men and women are imprisoned, on Mauritius the white men are the ones who are in charge, not the ones found in prison. Regardless, though, he and David are immediate friends, more like brothers, really. The Last Brother is framed from the modern-day adult perspective of Raj, and we know almost immediately that something tragic happened during his time with David, although it is only through his recollection of the past that we discover exactly what it was.

Before we get started, here are some of the reviews of readers who will be participating today:

Caribousmom
Devourer of Books
Diary of an Eccentric
Indie Reader Houston
It Was Uphill Both Ways
Must Read Faster
That’s What She Read

If you plan on participating in today’s BOOK CLUB, please consider subscribing to comments at the bottom of the page (please use the TOP subscription option, the second option will subscribe you only to replies of your own comments).  I will be updating this post with new questions and ideas over the course of the day.

Here we go…

  • First off, what were your general impressions of the book?
  • Is this a book you would have read had you not been reading it for a book club?
  • What were your impressions about the way Nathacha Appanah framed this book, opening it with Raj as an older man remembering his childhood and time with David?
  • Cassandra from Indie Reader Houston commented that Raj seemed to relive his past so completely that he even regains his youthful innocence. Do you agree? How does this influence Raj’s reliability as a narrator?
  • Whose story do you think Appanah was primarily telling? Raj’s? David’s? Why?
  • Did the fact that the book is translated change the way you read it or felt about it?
  • What questions did you have for the group?
    Two more questions inspired by TopherGL
  • Does hearing a similar story multiple times, even about a truly horrific event desensitize us to it?
  • How does Raj and David’s story touch upon World War II and the Holocaust in a unique way, even with barely mentioning it overtly?

12 review copies of The Last Brother were provided by Graywolf Press in order to facilitate this discussion.  Thank you!

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57 comments to BOOK CLUB – The Last Brother

  • I really enjoyed this book, as much as you can enjoy a book with so much loss and abuse. I actually had this book before we decided on it for a BOOK CLUB pick, so I would have read it either way. Plus, it is right up my alley: a place and set of events I know nothing about, rich prose in a short package.

    I liked the framing with Raj’s adult voice, I think this would have been a difficult story to tell entirely from a young boy’s perspective, especially a boy as unworldly as Raj was. I think that Raj is so reduced by his guilt over David that he does, in some ways, regress to something almost childlike, but I don’t think he is any more or less reliable than any narrator trying to tell a story that happened 50 or 60 years earlier. Memory is tricky.

    • I agree, Jen. A child narrator would have not been as authentic. His perceptions of what was happening would have also been altered as a result of his grief for his brothers and the abuse that he suffers at the hands of his father.

      Using the adult Raj as the narrator was the perfect choice. First, it provides a frame for the story, which is always useful when looking into the past. It also tempers the emotional response that the child may have had. He’s had time to reflect, so he can be more objective. I was really impressed, though, with how the adult Raj was able to maintain the child-like innocence that his younger self would have had at the time.

  • I loved this book, even though it was so sad. The story was so touching and I liked the history of Mauritius and seeing how Raj and his family lived. It was interesting to see the perspective of a family that is so isolated from what was going on, not only geographically, but because they had more immediate concerns dealing with their own survival.

    Raj is interesting to see because he judges his 9 year old self very harshly, and while I understood that, and maybe would have felt similarly if I had experienced what he did, I didn’t agree with him. He lets his mom off the hook for not noticing much about the war because she had buried two sons and had an abusive husband and a sickly child to concern herself with. I wish he had been able to cut himself some slack as well.

    • I agree that Raj is overly harsh on his childhood self – but I think he carried the guilt and responsibility for David’s death his whole life. I also think what he is experiencing is a bit of survivor guilt. When his brothers die, he wonders why he (the lesser of the brothers, in his opinion) survived, but they did not. He sees in David the chance to have another brother – and then David also dies…reinforcing that “why me?” mentality.

      • So that makes me wonder, who is The Last Brother? Is this about the last ‘brother’ he loses in David, or about his survivor’s guilt as the last one? I guess maybe that goes to the question of who the story is really about.

        • I think David is the last brother….

        • I wondered that too. And I think that’s probably one of those things that is open to interpretation. A case can be made for both Raj and David, though I think Raj would probably think it’s David because he feels as if he has appropriated his story.

    • It’s always easier to forgive other people than it is to forgive one’s self. I think the reason that he is so hard on himself is that as he grows older and has his own son, the reality of what David had to go through starts to sink in. It really bothers him that a child had to suffer that way. He realizes that his own experiences pale in comparison. I think that survivor guilt is a good way to describe it.

  • First off, my thanks to Nicole and Jenn for setting up this Book Club and also to Graywolf Press for their generosity in providing books!

    I loved this book – it is just the kind of book that I look for. I loved that it included an aspect of history not many people are aware of and that it was set on an island that I knew nothing about. This is definitely a book which would have caught my eye in the bookstore…so yes, I probably would have eventually read it.

    I found the perspective of the book (an old man’s memories of an important part of his childhood) perfect. Retrospection gives us insights we might never have had, and that is what the adult Raj brings to the book. There were times I almost forgot it was from an adult perspective, however, because we were taken back to that point in time so effortlessly.

    As in any “retelling” of a story, the narrator cannot be completely reliable. But what was important was not that the facts be exactly right, but how the event impacted Raj’s life and the emotions and feelings that he carried with him from that day forward.

    I think it is David’s story that is informed by Raj’s story. I believe the author used David’s experience as a way to witness for those who had been through this time and who had died. We learn a lot about both characters, however, and Raj’s story is definitely an important piece thematically.

    I thought the translation was beautifully done. I’ve read translated works before that are awkward. This one flowed. I almost forgot it was a translation.

    • It was a great translation! I never felt that I was dealing with something that had not been written in English. I read a lot of translations and have written a few. That is a rare accomplishment. It’s also one of the reasons that I’m really looking forward to teaching this book in a class someday. I think it will be easily accessible to a lot of students (and readers in general) who would normally stay away from works in translation. They’ll get caught up in the story, and forget that it was written in French. (for some reason, students tend to focus on the fact that we’re not getting the “real story” because it was filtered through a translator first).

      • I agree Casandra…the translation is so well done. And I think this would be a great book to introduce to students.

        • I third that. I found it to be so refreshing to hear a new story and take on the horrors that were unleashed preceding and during WWII and thought how wonderful it’d be to teach the novel. It doesn’t just offer a fresh perspective on history – it also offers some highly engaging discussion points on loss (the two brothers dying because of a natural disaster), abuse and the way people are able, or forced, to neglect what’s going on in the world for various reasons (the mother as a prime example of this). I will have it on my shelves, most definitely.

      • Jessica M.

        I definitely agree that the translation was fantastic! I didn’t really feel like I was reading a translated work; the writing flowed so beautifully that it just felt natural in English. The translator really did a fantastic job.

  • I have a question for the group:

    On page 93, the adult Raj tells us that he has spent a lifetime collecting erasers. He says: “My son will be baffled, he will perceive it as an old man’s whim. Perhaps I should explain to him that it has been my particular way of frustrating time’s attrition, postponing death and sustaining the illusion that one can always erase everything and make a fresh start.”

    I initially interpreted this that we can erase the past and start anew – a vision of hope for the future. But on the last page, it becomes clear that Raj does not want to erase the past…and yet he sees his son as hope for the future. I eventually decided that Raj had spent his whole life trying to erase the past, but then in the retelling of his story, he accepts the past and knows we must remember and learn from our history. How did you interpret this part of the book?

    • I remember that part because I just didn’t like it! But I think that you’re right in your interpretation. I still have trouble accepting that bit as plausible!

      • It did seem a bit odd, didn’t it?

        • I am pretty terrible with symbols and metaphors, but I just didn’t see how collecting erasers in itself worked as a way to explain the desire to erase the past. After writing that out, I feel a bit better about it, actually. Still, it’s sort of one of those parts of a novel that sometimes feels choppy.

    • I think I interpreted it more as him wanting to erase the pain of the past, or perhaps to change not everything, but some of his own actions.

    • I never have figured out what it was about the erasers. In some ways, I like the simplicity of it as a symbol, but, in others I almost think it is too obvious. Of course he wants to erase the pain of the past. Everyone does. Not everyone feels compelled to collect erasers.

      • LOL – exactly! I think this part of the book stuck out for me because it seemed so incredibly odd. It was the only time in the book that I felt like the author went over the top a bit trying to introduce such obvious symbolism!

    • dogearedcopy

      When I came across this passage, I stopped and was reminded that I was reading a translation :-(

      I think the original idea of collecting erasers from various places traveled to (“souvenirs”) and the idea of remembering (“se souvenir”) probably read better, less prosaically, in the original French.

  • Thanks for hosting this!

    I thought it was important, like others said, for the story to be told through adult eyes. I also agree with Nicole that Raj was far too harsh on himself, even though he’d been carrying that guilt (as Wendy said) around with him for decades. If it had been another writer or maybe even another translator, I might not have enjoyed the book for that – there’s a fine line that the author/translator walked wonderfully.

    It is definitely David’s story, and it is interesting to think about what the novel would have been like if it had been told from his perspective. I wonder how it would have been different for me, whether or not it would have been as powerful. I’ve read so many books from the perspective of Davids that I think this book struck me in a special way just for its difference.

    • I really liked the way this story was framed as being about people and their lives moreso than it was about an event and I think that’s why it succeeds in being fresh and interesting. This family had very little to do with the war and with a few exceptions, it s not very much mentioned but is conveyed through the action and David’s experience with the family.

  • This idea about the book being more powerful from Raj’s perspective than from David’s because of the glut of stories like David’s really interests me. I’m not 100% of all of the questions it makes me want to ask, but a couple ideas:
    -Does hearing a similar story multiple times, even about a truly horrific event desensitize us to it?
    -How does Raj and David’s story touch upon World War II and the Holocaust in a unique way, even with barely mentioning it overtly?

    • I think hearing the same story over and over CAN desensitize us (I think back to the LA riots when we saw repeatedly the truck driver being beaten…after awhile it lost its shock value). So telling a story in a different way I think strengthens it. I think this novel was different in that it really humanized it – we saw the impact without being told exactly what David had gone through (because we KNOW what he had gone through already). Seeing the aftermath, so to speak, of the Holocaust on David (and subsequently on Raj) made it a more powerful telling of a familiar story.

      • I had not even though about the issue of desensitizing us; that’s really perceptive. I also find myself thinking about how much of the other books, like Night (which I love), are very singular – their books are about the Holocaust. This one, I think, is centered on that but in a very important way, and gives us a view of poverty and family abuse, among other things, while delivering an important piece of history.

    • Jessica M.

      I agree with both of you. I feel like even though Holocaust stories are powerful, sometimes reading them done the same way over and over can make it seem almost less real or less potent. Seeing David’s story through the eyes of Raj brought a different, fresh perspective that made the story unique and more powerful. And I agree that so many of the other issues that are involved (like poverty and abuse) make it so much more than just a Holocaust story; it’s really a rich portrait of a time and place in history. I also love that it’s a completely different story from the ones normally written about the Holocaust; I for one had no idea that there were Jewish people imprisoned on Mauritius, and it brought a completely different feeling than books like Night or books about Anne Frank, for example.

    • I don’t know that I have a definite answer for this. I do know, however, that anytime I read something with a new perspective, that it resonates more. That was true with Marcus Zuzak’s The Book Thief, and it was true of this story. I don’t know that I can say I was desensitized by reading so many similar stories, but I do know that the different stories really stood out.

    • I don’t think that hearing the same story over again can be desensitizing because they are never really the same story. The Book Thief is different from Stones from the River, which is different from The Diary of Anne Frank, which is different from this one. If we were to read every book ever written about WWII and the Holocaust, maybe then would we be able to say that we can fully comprehend what occurred. One or two stories is not enough to allow us to do so.

      As for your second question, I think the mere fact that it shows that anti-Semitism and internment camps happened all over the world is profound. Schools pretty much focus just on eastern Europe and rarely discuss what happened under Stalin. To see what occurred across the world on a remote island in the Pacific is huge and just underscores what the Jews faced as far as acceptance in society.

  • I have to run off to go see patients for about 3 hours…but, I’ll be back to join in again after that! Great discussion so far!!!

  • My question: What meaning do you extract from the fact that the author made it very clear that the mother just did not think about the war? I think Wendy mentioned it – but what are we supposed to take away from this? I felt deeply connected to her and Raj because of the abuse and the poverty because some of my past students have been in such similar situations, and I wonder what lesson they are to take from that. I felt it wasn’t a slight against the mother but rather an acknowledgement that without a connection – like Raj forms with David – it is maybe impossible to do anything but not think about them. But the story itself is a way to connect us to the tragedies in life. I’m kind of rambler.

    • What you say about the need for connection makes sense to me. In addition to that, Raj’s mother had SO much misery in her own life (drunk and abusive husband, poverty, dead sons) that I doubt she had much emotional energy left to think much about something so far away from her own life.

    • I think that having the mother being ignorant to world events was meant to emphasize their isolation. She had no one to turn to when her husband abused her and her children; they were isolated in a small village with no one to step in. The fact that she could not even read or write (I believe that was also mentioned in the book) further isolated her. Given all of the barriers, I was amazed at what a wonderful parent she was able to be to Raj (and also to David).

    • I was really interested in this piece as well, and glad that there wasn’t any judgement of the mother. I think it is really easy to make sweeping statements about how involved we should or should not be with world events, and why some people can’t do anything.

    • I don’t think I ever even considered judging his mother. Her behavior seem to fit both the location and the era. I think Raj understood that. She did what she had to do to make things as easy as possible. She wasn’t oblivious to the world around her – she just didn’t have access to it. It is so strange to think of being so disconnected from the world in that way, given how wired we all are now, but it happened.

    • Could it be a case where the mother has so much about which to worry that she just can’t handle one more thing, especially something that appears to be as remote as the war? I definitely do not think we are to judge her, as I view her attitude more of a completely understandable coping mechanism more than anything else.

    • dogearedcopy

      Each person’s world, whether fictional or IRL, contracts or expands as needs be or as circumstances dictate. When Raj’s family lived in the north, Raj’s mother’s life was circumscribed by the sugarcane, dirt, mud, flash floods, death, abuse, grief and a sickly child. When the family moved inland, her world was changed again to one of the jungle, further isolation, continued abuse and her growing son. I suspect that had her son and/or husband been eligible for the military, she would have taken more of an interest in world events.; buy she played the hand she was dealt.

  • Jessica M.

    This book was just absolutely amazing. Thank you for hosting the book club! I’m not sure if this is a book I would have noticed otherwise, though if I had I’m sure I would have read it anyways. I’ve been really interested in stories of the Holocaust for a while, and I found this one to be both incredibly moving and beautifully written. I had a little trouble with the language at first because the sentences and thoughts seemed to run on into each other, but once I got into the flow and rhythm of the language, I actually really loved that about it.

    I think the story was more about David, but that framing it through Raj’s telling of the events made it more powerful. I really like (and agree with) TopherGL’s point — when it comes to Holocaust stories, the bulk really do come from the perspective of the David character, and to hear the story from a new perspective was refreshing and allowed it to take on a different feeling. I also think just the subject itself is interesting and unique — typically Holocaust stories revolve around the events going on in Europe, and issues such as concentration camps and Jews in hiding. That there were Jews imprisoned on Mauritius is an entirely new story to me, and I think that made the book even more powerful and interesting. It is a familiar story, set in a new place with new details.

    The fact that the book was translated didn’t change the way I felt about it at all. It was so beautifully written and perfectly translated that it could have easily been written the way it is in English and worked perfectly. I think that’s just a testament to how great the translator’s work is.

  • Thank you for hosting such a wonderful book! This was definitely NOT on my radar until I received it in the mail, but I am very glad I had the opportunity to read it. I felt it was a beautifully written story about the power of forgiveness, friendship and survival. The fact that it was a translation meant nothing to me. The beauty of the language belied any issues in the translation.

    To me, this is definitely Raj’s story. David is only his reason for sharing it with the reader, but the audience truly does not get to understand David as well as we do Raj. However, therein lies the strength of the novel. The unanswered questions – who is the last brother, would Raj have felt so deeply for David if he hadn’t lost his brothers, would he have been more worldly had even one of his brothers lived, and so forth – are there because of Raj’s relationship with David. Raj becomes the adult he is because of everything that happened to him as a child but mostly because of his guilt over David’s death.

    I think the way Ms. Appanah frames the story works perfectly and allows the reader to get behind Raj and cheer him on. He isn’t afraid to showcase his failings, making him simultaneously more tragic and more likable. He becomes the everyman we want to help and want to succeed. Because he is reminiscing, the reader understands just how far Raj has come to succeed in life. That he does is not a mystery because Raj as an adult tells us so. It lessens some of the melancholy while reading the truly awful things that occur during Raj’s childhood. A child narrator would not have worked at all. Raj as a child was too clueless, too simple, and too naive to be able to share his story with the same insight, with the same feeling that he does as an adult. It just wouldn’t have worked.

    • I never gave a second thought to who the last brother was. For me, it was David. He is the last brother gained, and the last brother lost.

      I like your point about the young Raj not being able to be the narrator. He didn’t have the life experience to make sense of what he went through. I wouldn’t say that the adult Raj is the most worldly of men, but he knows enough to realize that his experience was profound.

  • dogearedcopy

    My general impressions of this book are that it’s nicely constructed, well written and well translated. I probably would *not* have read the book had it not been for this opportunity. I’m a little weary of historical flashback fiction (older character remembering his/her past) that features WWII (with so much powerful non-fiction about this era, I’m not a fan of the fiction) and; have become even a bit wary of translations (there is often a sensibility that can be lost and ergo frustrating); but I I have to admit this was so nicely done that I not only have I had to temper my prejudices, but I’m looking into checking out more Lannan Translations.

    Framing the story as Raj, an older man remembering his past, Appanah definitely makes this Raj’s story instead of David’s. The POV permits the reader to only evaluate what Raj recalls as having seen and experienced, not only the time with David, but the time *before* David, the events that made David’s presence significant later on. As to why Appanah chose to write Raj’s story as opposed to David’s I can only speculate that writing from a Mauritian’s POV enabled her to create a more convincing story (write what what you know or can reasonably imagine.) Had Appanah chosen to write David’s story, it would still had to have been through a Mauritian’s lens which actually now re-asks the question, is she really writing David’s story in the only way possible? Still, I maintain that this is Raj’s story, his experience, his memory, his guilt.

    I’m not sure I buy into the idea that Raj “relives his life so completely that he even regains his youthful innocence.” I think that in the telling-of-the-tale, the older Raj has deliberately tried avoid embellishing and, as a result, the simplicity of the emotional narrative can appear childlike. This stripping away of affectation also carries with it the onus of being honest with what *did* occur, or to be more precise, to confront one’s true motivations for one’s actions. It would be easy to romanticize Raj’s actions,except that he himself admits that what he did was from the child’s egocentricism of love (ref Eric Fromme.)

    • I agree about Raj. I don’t think that he kept his innocence, and for whatever reason that he does it (grief, survivor’s guilt, etc) he judges his younger self very harshly, and by what he felt that he should have known about the war as opposed to what he really knew and could grasp as a child. In a sense what happened with David marked the end of his childhood. It’s when he is able to keep his father from being abusive.

      • dogearedcopy

        I’ll go a step farther and say the transformation from childhood to true manhood happened the day he decided not to be like his father. The refutation of the anger, however cathartic he may have thought it would be, was key and gave the reader a hint as to the man he would become: loving son, husband, teacher and father.

  • Hi! I’m finally at home and able to sit down for a few minutes.

    I love the discussion so far. If I do ever get to use this book in class (I’m considering a career change lately), then I will have a lot of good stuff to start with!

    I’ve already discussed most of what I wanted to say. I do, however, want to know what you all think of David. We haven’t really discussed him as a character. In different circumstances, would we still sympathize with him? Say, if he were the child of the warden? Is he only special because he’s a victim (albeit somewhat indirectly) of the Holocaust?

    I also want to say that I really enjoy Book Club. I think you have chosen some amazing books, and I’m already looking forward to next month!

    • That’s a really interesting question. I’m actually not sure I got a very good feel for David as a character. He was such a part of Raj’s memory that I’m not sure we were getting a clear picture of him. I think he had to be escaping from something traumatic for the story to have worked at all. I think we would have still cared about David no matter what he had been escaping, but I don’t think the story as a whole would have packed enough punch.

    • Wow, that is a really good question, Cassandra. I have a hard time visualizing him in different circumstances. I had the feeling that David was a “special” child – his gait is described as being almost clumsy and he seemed to me to be almost developmentally delayed. I found myself drawn to him as this small boy who was orphaned and alone in the world – whose only friend was a boy who could barely speak his language. So in that way, I think that even had he not been a Jewish victim of the Holocaust I would have still cared about him.

      I agree with your thoughts about Book Club…the books so far have been wonderful, and the discussion has been so interesting. I love having other like-minded readers to discuss this very literary books with!!! I too am looking forward to next month’s pick!

      • I saw David more as a broken child rather than special, though I can see the validity of that. It’s also difficult to really know David because we’re seeing him so far removed from who he actually is – it’s an adult Raj reflecting on memories that he can’t trust (and can we trust the narrator, anyway?) from his childhood. Felt to me like I was seeing an impression rather than a clear, developed character. What I knew about David, and why I felt it was his story, was the impact that he had on Raj, and what relationship he formed with the narrator.

    • I think David was largely symbolic and open to interpretation by Raj based on where he was in life and whatever he was going through at the time. Raj was very attracted to his happiness and senses of hope and liked that he brought that sense of togetherness and selflessness that he got from his brothers, and he allowed Raj to play the strong older brother. Though David was technically a year older he seemed much younger.

  • Sorry I’m a day late, but better late than never!

    I loved this book; the language was beautiful. I’ve read some translated books that didn’t read as beautifully, so I’d like to think that nothing was lost in the translation.

    I think telling the story from an older Raj’s POV was a good call, as a young POV is sometimes hard to read or relate to, but there was still plenty about his feelings at the time. I think he was telling both stories, his and David’s, as much as he could tell David’s without really knowing what had happened to David during the war.

    I have read dozens of WWII/Holocaust books, and each of them hits me hard. I don’t feel I’ve been desensitized to them, but I can see how one might be. This was a really unique tale of the war, not only because the war isn’t really mentioned outright but also because the main character didn’t even know that the war was going on. There were no TVs or radios or newspapers available to him to tell him what was going on in the outside world, and surviving the conditions he was subjected to was more than he could handle already.

    Cassandra’s last question is a great one. I do think that knowing he is a child of the Holocaust gives us a certain perception of him, but I think the way he was described by Raj (who didn’t know about the Holocaust) made me feel like he needed to be sheltered and protected and loved — regardless of his back story.

    As for Raj’s mother not thinking about the war…I can’t say I blame her. She is abused and living in poverty; every day is a struggle. Unless the war really showed up on her doorstep, I think she had enough on her plate already and was doing the best she could with what she had.

    Thanks for hosting this great discussion! I will be posting a review of the book later today.

  • I loved the book! I am also a day late, but I’ve been sick this week so I just finished it. I don’t have much to add to the conversation, as you all seem to have covered everything! I simply adored it! It was an incredible story and definitely a sad one. I did review it on my blog,

    Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to join in with you guys!

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