Jill's Reviews > The Last Brother

The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah
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's review
Mar 12, 2011

really liked it
Read from March 10 to 12, 2011

This is a story as old as the hills – the discovery and loss of a soul mate in a world gone awry – told with lyricism, poignancy, and sensuousness by a French-Mauritian author who is at the top of her craft.

Whose story is it? Certainly, it’s the story of two little kings, Raj and David, as reflected from the 70 year old memory of Raj, the survivor. The title – The Last Brother – has dual meaning. Raj is, indeed, the last brother of three; he lost his younger and older brothers in the midst of an apocalyptic storm that caught the three of them unaware in the woods.

But the title can also be construed as a tribute to David, who becomes, in many ways, Raj’s last brother: “I wanted a brother, two brothers, a family as before, games as before, I wanted to be protected as before, I wanted to catch sight of those shadows out of the corner of my eye that let you know you are not alone. I was struggling desperately to resist everything that took me further away from childhood…”

Raj lives a brute existence in Mauritius with a violent, drunken, mean-spirited father who viciously beats his surviving son and his wife. In Beau Brissau, Raj’s father takes a job as a guard in a prison that holds 1,500 Jewish exiles who have been refused entry to Israel based on formalities. After one vicious beating, Raj ends up in the prison hospital, where he meets the blond-haired David who suffers from malaria.

Nature in the tropic is another character in this tale; Raj feels in harmony with the surrounding landscape, filled with sweet-smelling stream and camphor trees and abundant mangos, lychees, and logans. But nature, is not always benevolent: it can rail without warning, it can deceive, and it can create havoc and death. It is, of course, a metaphor for life itself. And eventually – as we learn at the very beginning – it can separate bonds that are painstakingly created by two young and broken boys.

This wistfulness and ripeness of the prose recall French-Russian author Andrei Makine; no surprise, since they share a translator. The story of two outcasts – a young tropical abused child and his exiled and orphaned friend – and their quixotic quest for freedom in a world that denies it is, at times, heartbreaking. There is a misstep at the ending, I think, when Ms. Appanah summarizes the implications of this little-known episode of Mauritian history, which momentarily causes the spell to disperse. But the beauty lingers, long after the last word is read.

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