The Last Brother-Nathacha Appanah
As 1944 comes to a close, nine-year-old Raj is unaware of the war devastating the rest of the world. He lives in Mauritius, a remote island in the Indian Ocean, where survival is a daily struggle for his family. When a brutal beating lands Raj in the hospital of the prison camp where his father is a guard, he meets a mysterious boy his own age. David is a refugee, one of a group of Jewish exiles whose harrowing journey took them from Nazi-occupied Europe to Palestine, where they were refused entry and sent on to indefinite detainment in Mauritius.
I for one, never have read about Mauritius and its involvement in WWII came as a bit of a surprise. And it’s even more intriguing since the story is told through Raj, a local boy who has no idea about the war. We learn vaguely that these Jews escaped from various Eastern European countries to go to Palestine but were turned away by immigration. How must it have been to have all your hopes dashed of paradise and to end up in a prison in the middle of a jungle? So, we as readers, are wondering about that even as Appanah focuses on Raj’s life of poverty. Raj lives a life terrorized by a powerless father, nurtured by a resilient mother, and safe within the embrace of two brothers. When he loses them, his life gets uprooted in a way that impacts a nine-year-old dramatically. This explains the bond he creates with David, one of the children in the prison. They are both sad, from grim backgrounds, marked by tragedy but still kings.
Told in rich, nostalgic detail, the narration walks the border between childlike and mature. There’s the child’s fear tinged with the mature adult’s admiration for his mother’s resilience of character. The descriptions of Mauritius are loving and evocative tinged with an understanding of the way time can change our perceptions of a landscape. The plot is tragic but the telling of it has so many beautiful moments full of light and wonder with metaphors enriching the prose making it into a jungle of meaning. One example is the role of language, despite the novel being in one language (French originally), Raj speaks of his native tongue but communicates with David in French, a language both learned in school. David sings in Yiddish-a completely unknowable moment for Raj.
A sad riddle of how histories can brush up against each other, impact each other, that clocks in under two hundred pages and never feels heavy.