Title: The Last Brother
Author: Nathacha Appanah
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books): “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.
A massive storm on the island leads to a breach of security at the camp, and David escapes, with Raj’s help. After a few days spent hiding from Raj’s cruel father, the two young boys flee into the forest. Danger, hunger, and malaria turn what at first seems like an adventure to Raj into an increasingly desperate mission.”
Thoughts: At 164 pages, The Last Brother is an easy read, but the subject matter is not. There is a tremendous amount of tragedy compacted into this short novel, making it a compelling but painful experience for the reader. Raj’s guilt hits the reader full-force with the opening sentence and does not ease as he takes the reader through his maze of memories.
Raj’s childhood was by no means easy, and his fascination/friendship with David compounded the difficulties. Given everything that happened to Raj and his family at Mapou, his friendship with David becomes suspect. Does his desire to fill the void left by his missing brothers make his interest in David less genuine? If he had his brothers there, would he have spent his afternoons watching the compound? Would the resulting tragedy have ever occurred?
The what-ifs are what truly drive the novel. Remarkably, Raj does not spare himself from the what-ifs, hinting at these various questions but afraid to delve deeper because of his lingering guilt over David’s fate. Given everything that Raj experienced as a child, the reader is more than willing to forgive Raj’s inability to question his actions. By the age of ten, he had experienced more horrors than most people experience in a lifetime, and his lack of introspection is completely understandable. Rather, Ms. Appanah presents Raj’s story in such a way that the reader is able to fill the gaps and raise the questions where Raj is not.
The happiness of his adult life makes a great contrast to his past. For a childhood perpetuated by traumatic events, Raj as an adult is modest, unassuming and remarkably content. His ability to overcome the horrors of his childhood speaks to a character formed at age ten, when he was willing to do whatever it took to save his friend from the internment camp. It is this drive, this ability to survive that makes Raj and The Last Brother special.
With abject poverty, horrid abuse, a complete lack of survival skills, and other obstacles, The Last Brother could have easily devolved into a recitation of woes. It is Ms. Appanah’s skillful creation of Raj and brilliant handling of the tragedies that prevent it from doing so. Rather, she is able to weave the tragedy into Raj’s strength, making him not only a character that readers will like and cheer but also a character that forces the reader to question what it means to be a brother and a friend.