The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, translated by Geoffrey Strachan
Published by Graywolf Press
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. This is a rather short book – less than 200 pages – but it is so richly evocative of place and emotion that it feels just as meaty as something twice as long. Having Raj frame the story as an adult lends the more reflective and retrospective feel that is really crucial to this story, while still allowing the narration of Raj as a nine year-old to be authentic.
Besides being very well written and translated, The Last Brother gives the reader a peek at a story of World War II that most of us have never read, that of the 1500 European Jews who were turned away from Palestine and detained as illegal immigrants on Mauritius for years. More information about this historical reality can be found in Nathacha Appanah’s interview with Tablet Magazine.
Don’t let the slim volume fool you, The Last Brother is a powerful novel that packs a huge emotional punch. Highly recommended.BOOK CLUB.
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