Friederike Knabe's Reviews > The Last Brother

The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah
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Feb 13, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: africa, french-lit
Read from February 08 to 11, 2011

Ten-year old David, his blond curls surrounding his pale face could not be more different from nine-year old black-haired dark-skinned Raj. In very dissimilar ways, each had suffered dramatic loss, and been exposed to violence and suffering. Yet, when their paths cross in the interior of the island of Mauritius, their friendship is instant and deeply felt. It is expressed by gestures, singing and dancing, much more than through a language that belongs to neither. Sixty years on, the elderly Raj's moving memories and reflective reminiscences of what happened in 1944/1945 are affectionately and convincingly imagined in this evocative and stirring novel by Nathacha Appanah. The author strikes a delicate balance between, on the one hand, the beautifully evoked lush landscapes of the island and the joie de vivre of Raj and his two brothers, and, set against these in sharp contrast, their family's hardship and fragility in the face of natural disasters that are compounding their poverty stricken life. At an even deeper level, THE LAST BROTHER is gracefully rendered story of a child's intensive need and capacity for love, an innocent love that struggles to survive despite everything, and the loss of which leaves painful memories and scars that need to be reopened before healing is possible...

Following a particularly vicious cyclone that robs Raj of his two beloved brothers, life turns desperate and lonely for Raj. His much reduced family has moved into a remote forest region of the island where his father can work as a prison guard. The (historical) prison of Beau Bassin is the centre, directly and indirectly of the events in the spring and summer of 1945. Again, finely weighing the joyful with the distressing realities, Appanah has the older Raj relive the exuberant feelings of the child that commence when he glimpses, from his hiding place on the other side of the barbed wire, the golden locks of a boy in the prison yard. Raj does not know anything about the ravages of war in Europe nor the plight of fleeing Jewish refugees whose ship had stranded on the Mauritius shore... For him, all that matters is his new friend David. A particularly vicious attack by the father,lands Raj inside the prison compound; the nightly explorations with David provide wonderful relief for the boys - and for the by now fully involved reader. The author's style and tone changes whenever Raj slips into the mind of his younger self, when he can laugh and dance and imagine a much happier life for him, his beloved mother and David, his "new brother". A wonderful image captures a bright red parakeet that, nursed by the mother back to health, before flying off, settles briefly on David's head, seemingly "like a blessing...". We, however as readers, increasingly sense and worry about the fragility of this renewed joie de vivre and Raj, with hindsight admits that he was too naïve, too selfish in pursuing his own dreams, not really knowing or understanding what David needed or wished for. The limited language (French) between them nor the gestures can help Raj understand. Or could they have, should they have? The questions and his feelings of guilt, shame and more have remained in Raj's mind all these sixty years and he ponders them again and again. In questioning the veracity of his memories, his lack of curiosity as a child, he also reveals his learning since that time. David had appeared in a dream the night before the story begins and his calm and smiling expression, reaching out to him, gives Raj the strength to visit with his old friend at his gravesite...

Nathacha Appanah writes from her own experience, having been born into an Asian Mauritius family and raised on the island. Her intimate knowledge of the natural beauty of the landscape as well as the social structures, cultures and languages in the multiracial society shines through in her sensitive depiction of her characters and their behaviour. In some ways remiscencent of the writing of J.M.G. Le Clezio, her compatriot and Nobel Laureate, her language and story telling talents are different and very much her own. It is still a mystery, also to her, why 1500 Jewish refugees on a ship, after being refused landing in Palestine in 1940, ended up in a prison camp in Beau Bassin. The graveyard of near-by Saint Martin honours those who died during these harsh and desperate four years. Her novel is an important and deeply moving tribute to those who lost their lives and those who survived. [the full review can be found on amazon.com
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Reading Progress

04/09 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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switterbug (Betsey) Oh, terrific! Let me know how it is! BetZ


Friederike Knabe I am between 4 and 5 right now, should be finished tomorrow. May well end up with 5 stars


switterbug (Betsey) OK--eager to read your review.


Friederike Knabe I finished it! I cried at the end... so moving. Definitely 5 stars! Not because of the tears... Reviw in progress


switterbug (Betsey) Well, if a novel moves me to tears, it is often 5 stars. Certainly effective! Just one question. Is the style like LeClezio? I had difficulty engaging with him, as you know, (my fault) because it had a detachment about it that I needed to get through.


message 6: by Friederike (last edited Feb 11, 2011 09:49AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Friederike Knabe No, it's a female (youngish) writer speaking in the voice of a 70 year old man - who himself goes back to his dramatic childhood... it WILL move you to tears. It starts a bit slow but hyou know the outcome upfront and you need to read the story to find out what happened...


switterbug (Betsey) OK, sounds intriguing and my cuppa. Well, the Forna book is very gradual, also--takes commitment and time to build and wrap itself around you. Some of the best books are those that don't grab you from page one, necessarily.


switterbug (Betsey) Just Ammied my one-click for it!


Friederike Knabe My Forna is on the way


switterbug (Betsey) I know...I am excited!


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