The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah
|The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy|
|Summary: A seldom-told story about WWII provides the background to this story of loss and persecution on a tropical island as two boys form the most unlikely of friendships. Gorgeous and sad in equal measures.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 216||Date: February 2011|
Raj and his two beloved brothers live on a Mauritian sugar plantation. World War II rages far away and close too, but Raj is blissfully unaware of anything beyond his immediate surroundings. Life is poor and hard and Raj's father takes out the privations of his life on his sons and his wife - drunken beatings are a regular occurrence. But his mother is loving and kind, and skilled at healing, and his brothers are constant playmates.
But when a flood takes the lives of both his brothers, Raj and his family move away from their grief and into the forest. There, his father becomes a prison guard. But the beatings don't stop - the blows come hammering down beside us, upon us, upon my mother, upon me. Escaping into the trees for solitude one day, Raj observes the prison at which his father works, and he meets David, an interned Jewish refugee. In David, Raj sees a replacement for the brothers he has lost. And so, when nature intervenes once again, this time in the form of a devastating cyclone, David escapes the prison and the boys flee together, intending to return to the sugar plantation and make a new life together, free from captivity and violence.
But David has dysentery and malaria, and his strength is rapidly running out...
Told by Raj as an old man, The Last Brother is a story of childhood resistance to a violent and vicious adult world. But it's also the story of the larger fight against all injustice, whether it be state-inflicted genocide or parental abuse. There really were Jewish internees in Mauritius during World War II - a group of heroic people bought a ship, sailed it down the Danube, through the Black Sea and across the Mediterranean. They made it all the way to Palestine, but were refused entry by the British, turned around, and forced to sail their own ship to internment in Mauritius. Some of the detainees fought with the Allied forces, but the rest were imprisoned. Not really our finest moment.
But of course, neither Raj nor David understand any of this. What they do understand is that they're lonely and that the world is a harsh and brutal place. They see the need in one another and they reach out. As Raj looks back on the escape, Appanah exposes just how much his soul has suffered - from his father's violence, from the death of his brothers, and from his brief and tragic friendship with David. But that friendship was also the source of redemption for Raj. The power of love is a stronger force than we could ever know. And yet, in many ways, David remains a mystery to us and also to Raj - Did he think I was going to lead him to Eretz? Did he think we were going to a place where we could have been happy or did he - what a terrifying question at my age - make that journey simply for my sake? We - and Raj - will never know.
The whole thing is beautiful - from the picture of suffering souls, through the lush descriptions of an exotic island, prey to invincible forces of nature, to the rare and beautiful moments of friendship that are never forgotten. It's both extravagant and economical - not a word is wasted - and so it's gorgeous and sad, sophisticated and simple, all in equal measures. The translation is impeccable, too. I found it deeply moving, completely absorbing, and I cried for both boys.
My thanks to the good people at Quercus for sending the book.
I think you might also enjoy Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones - Great Expectations meets tropical island in a look at the love of reading, the terrors of war, post-colonialism and personal integrity. You could also look at Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the story of the years leading up to and the course of the Nigeria-Biafra war of the late 1960s.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah at Amazon.com.
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