Tuesday, June 7, 2011

REVIEW: The Last Brother, by Nathacha Appanah

The Last Brother, by Nathacha Appanah. Published 2011 by Graywolf Press. Literary Fiction. Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan.

The Last Brother, by French-Mauritian writer Nathacha Appanah, is a haunting and elegiac novel about a friendship between two boys on the island of Mauritius during World War 2. Young Raj is a native of the island and, while ignorant of the war going on elsewhere in the world, fights a battle of his own in a family destroyed by death and violence. His two brothers, who he worshipped, are killed in an accident, and his father, a puny, insecure man, uses his fists to take out his disappointments on Raj and his mother. Meanwhile Raj tries to live day to day, to survive and even thrive.

One day Raj follows his father, a prison guard, to work, and finds that the "criminals" his father guards are in fact emaciated and frightened Jews who have escaped from Eastern Europe on their way to Israel. Years later, Raj learns their story- they were deported to Mauritius after British administrators in Haifa decided they were illegal immigrants. In the mean time, though, he finds a friend- David, a young boy his age. He and David play together; he teaches David the secrets of the island and soon he helps David run away. Their friendship is sweet but unbearably tragic, one that will mark them both indelibly.

The Last Brother is a really beautiful novel and a must-read for literary fiction readers and absolutely anyone interested in World War 2 or the Holocaust; it's one of those gems that illuminates a little-known corner of history and brings it to beautiful life. Having said that, it's Raj's story more than it's David's, the story of how a boy deals with tragedy and death, how he grows up with shame and sadness and how becoming a teacher and a father helps him find peace. And that's a lot to pack into 160 pages or so but Appanah has written an engrossing and economical novel that offers a richly detailed sense of place both physical and emotional, told by a character who will win your heart. I hope you get a chance to pick this one up- you won't be sorry!

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.