The Last Brother

Graywolf. Feb. 2011. c.176p. ISBN 9781555975753. pap. $15. F
In this lyrical and quietly moving work, an old man recounts an event from childhood that has marked him irrevocably. In December 1940, a ship carrying 1500 Jews was turned away from Palestine and sailed on to Mauritius, an island off Africa's southeast coast. Nine-year-old Raj's father is a guard at the Beau-Bassin Prison, where the Jews were housed. The lonely Raj, whose two brothers had died in a terrible storm, ends up at the prison infirmary after his father beats him yet again. There, he forms an astonishing bond with blond-haired David, who seems, in that stale phrase revivified here, like Raj's better self. The description of their friendship is idyllic, but readers know from the start that something terrible happened to David, and the suspense can be unbearable as the story slowly unfolds. In a crucial scene, Raj intervenes to keep David from helping a fellow Jew being beaten (in essence, keeping David for himself), setting the stage for the tragedy to come.
VERDICT Don't look for splashy writing in this first novel by Appanah, a Mauritian-born journalist of Indian descent who has long lived in France. Instead, she offers a lovely little gem of a meditation on how humans can love and, inexplicably, hate.
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