The Last Brother, by Nathacha Appanah.
And now I do what I did in my dream: I reach out my hand to David, close my eyes, and remember. - from The Last Brother, page 8 -
I was expecting that, at my great age, I would take an indulgent view of my life, knowing that regrets serve no purpose, that you need a lot of luck to fulfill your dreams, that the best way to live is to do your utmost at every moment and that so many things happen without us, even though we spend all our time scurrying like madmen, in the belief that we can make some difference. But when I recall those summer days in 1945, when I speak of David, my heart is heavy, my head teems, and I am so assailed by regrets that I could weep. - from The Last Brother, page 125 -
The Last Brother takes the reader to a remote island off the coast of Africa where in 1940 British officials deported more than 1,500 Jews (who were attempting to flee to Palestine), identifying them as illegal immigrants. On Mauritius, these refugees spent the rest of the war in a detainment camp in Beau-Bassin. Many succumbed to tropical diseases and inadequate food. In all, 128 people died on Mauritius and were buried in the Jewish section of the St. Martin cemetery.
The novel is narrated by Raj who is now seventy years old and facing his own mortality. He remembers when he was a nine year old boy in the summer of 1945, living in Beau-Bassin and grieving the tragic loss of his two brothers. Ignorant of the war, the pograms and the death camps, he has little understanding of the people who live in the prison where his father works as a guard. Then one day, after suffering a brutal battering from his abusive father, Raj finds himself in the hospital within the prison walls. There he meets David, a ten year old Jewish boy who is one of the detainees. The two become fast friends. But when Raj heals, he is sent home to his mother, leaving David behind. When a tropical storm strikes the island, fate offers Raj the opportunity to free his friend ... but freedom comes at a cost.
The Last Brother is a haunting novel which has been beautifully translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan. This book demonstrates the redemptive value of stories, how telling a story can somehow bring healing to our broken hearts. Nathacha Appanah explores grief, loss, loneliness, domestic violence, and the loss of childhood innocence. Her language is evocative and lyrical, heartbreaking and joyous. When Raj's brothers are swept away in a mudslide, Raj and his mother carry the silent grief of loss within their hearts. It is this loss which informs Raj's life, draws him to David, and remains with him forever.
Like me, my mother carried the deaths of Anil and Vinod within her, throughout her life, and, like me, she was never able to put this bereavement into words. You can say you are an orphan, or a widow or a widower, but when you have lost two sons on the same day, two beloved brothers on the same day, what are you? What word is there to say what you have become? Such a word would have helped us, we would have known precisely what we were suffering from when tears came inexplicably to our eyes and when, years later, all it took was a smell, a color, a taste in the mouth, to plunge us into sadness once more, such a word could have described us, excused us and everyone would have understood. - from The Last Brother, page 76 -
Raj's story ultimately serves as a witness to the memory of those who lost their lives on Mauritius during a mostly ignored period in British history. Like the boy Raj, many people are ignorant of the thousands who were left on a remote island and more or less forgotten about for five years. Through the eyes of a child, the story somehow seems that much more horrific.
The novel spans less than 200 pages, and yet when I turned the last page I found myself moved by its powerful images and elegantly wrought prose. The Last Brother is a heartbreaking book, but in the end it is a reminder not to close our eyes to history, but to learn from it. This is a novel which I will not soon forget.
Five stars out of five.
Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".