In the remote forests of Madagascar, young Raj is almost oblivious of the Second World War raging beyond his tiny island. With only his mother for company, Raj only thinks of making friends. One day, the far-away world comes to Madagascar, and Raj meets David. They form a bond only death can destroy.
This gorgeous and deeply touching novel is set on the island nation of Mauritius off the coast of east Africa, which is isolated from the horrors of World War II but not from the harshness of life under British colonial rule. It is narrated by Raj, a nine year old boy whose family was among the thousands of Indians that were brought to the island decades before to work in its sugar cane fields for subsistence wages. After a tragic accident he and his parents have moved to a safer town, where his father finds work in a prison that supposedly houses hardened convicts. Raj is a sickly and stick thin boy, who is loved dearly by his mother but is not immune from his father's frequent wrathful and violent outbursts after he returns from his demeaning job. He is bored and lonely in his new home, with no close friends and little to occupy his fertile mind.
One day Raj watches the prison from nearby woods out of curiosity of the men who are housed there, and he is surprised to see a boy who is similar to him in age and size, although his blond hair and blue eyes set him apart. The two make eye contact, and later meet in a local hospital, where they quickly become friends despite their language differences. Raj learns that David is part of a group of approximately 1500 Jewish émigrés who attempted to travel from Eastern Europe to Palestine to escape the Nazis in 1940, but were refused admission because they did not have proper immigration documents. The British government determined that they were illegal immigrants, and condemned them to internment in the prison.
David is returned to the prison after his hospitalization, and Raj continues to observe his new friend from the woods. He escapes after a skirmish within the compound, and Raj helps him to flee from his pursuers. Unfortunately David is not well, and the two boys struggle to find food and shelter, as David's health rapidly declines.
The Last Brother is a wonderful coming of age novel, narrated by Raj as he nears the end of his life, which also highlights a little known chapter of Jewish history. The love and friendship that the two boys share rivals that of the most intimate couples, and these two characters will stay close to my heart for a long time to come.
The book’s plot is vaguely reminiscent of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: a boy on each side of a fence becoming friends and coming-of-age in a violent and chaotic time. But there the similarities end. Raj is a beautiful character faced with tragedy after tragedy in his life, but resilient as only a child can be. His grave innocence is not only believable, but compelling. Based on the true story of a boatload of Jews fleeing the Holocaust, which ends up marooned on Mauritius, the book is a Holocaust story writ small, far from the Nazis and the war. I loved the story’s gentle tone and matter-of-fact depiction of hard lives. By telling the story in flashbacks, the author is able to show the persistence of grief and love despite the passage of time and the continuation of life. I highly recommend this book for its story and its writing, but especially so that you, too, can meet brave and loving Raj.
Appanah leads us on a journey of friendship, love and ultimate grief as the two boys try to escape from their impoverished world. She tells the story in Raj's voice, but from his perspective as a grown man 60 years later. We are given a look at a little known part of World War II history, and another piece of the Palestinian puzzle as we watch a group of European refugees who must remain incarcerated on the island of Mauritius awaiting their longed-for settlement in Palestine.
This book touched me on so many levels: the story of the two boys, Raj's story of his young life, the elder Raj's memories of what was and what could have been, and the story of the refugees. The author gives us all of this in a small, 165 page gut-wrenching book of incredible beauty. It will definitely rank as one of my top reads of the year.
This is a beautifully written book. It was so sad that I put it aside because I couldn't bear that David should die. It unveils a piece of Mauritian history that had remained hidden until 1973.
The first few chapters vividly recreate Raj’s family life at the Mapou cane fields. It’s a very poor life, the family has almost nothing, and their father is violent at times, but Raj has his two brothers. His relationship with his brothers affects him for the rest of the book and provides several motivations, so it is fairly important. Appanah develops the relationship very well, despite only having a few scenes and chapters to do so. The friendship between Raj and David works well, as at first it is tentative and mainly driven by Raj’s slight obsession, although there are some coincidences there. The setting – first at Mapou, then at the family’s isolated forest house (where they move when Raj’s father gets a job as a prison guard) – is also well-written. Descriptions of the parched desert of Mapou, followed by torrential rains, and Raj’s relationship with the forest at their new home are memorably done. Raj’s view of his parents is a little one dimensional – his father is a violent bully, who is also a cringing coward in front of his bosses, while his mother is loving and hardworking, supports his relationship with David, and is an expert at making herbal concoctions, to the point of being almost magic. But these are minor quibbles in an affecting and vividly written book.
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.
Raj is a solitary boy, quite removed from current events (he doesn't know there's a war going on, he didn't know what "Jewish" meant), and this story is being told at a 60-year-remove by him as an old man of 70. He journeys to the prison to take lunch to his father and stays hidden in the brush beyond the gate to see what happens. What he sees and doesn't understand are a bunch of skeletal white people, seemingly unused to the sun, who seem afraid to move or to even grab at the plentiful fruit on the trees around them in the prison courtyard. Are these the dAngerous ones, rUnaways, rObbers, and bAd mEn his father tells him live at the prison? If so, why are there children with them?
His attention is taken with one of the boys, and he imagines that the boy comes to the fence and sees him. Afterward, he makes an almost daily trek to the shrubs to see the prisoners come out for their daily break and to imagine the little boy on the other side of the fence as his friend.
After a particularly brutal beating at the hands of his father, his father takes him to the prison hospital for treatment, stating the usual mantra of abusive parents, "He fell". The little boy on the other side of the fence, David, is also in the hospital for an illness. They become fast friends, and Raj learns that both of David's parents have died. He never really learns how, and suddenly, Raj is healed and taken away from the hospital without really being able to say goodbye.
A sudden cyclone affords the opportunity for David to escape the prison fence, and the boys end up journeying through the forest on their way back to Mapou, where Raj believes that he can maybe find his older brother Anil alive, since his body was never discovered.
I wish a review could convey the artistry of this story - the unfolding of an uneven friendship, the guilt an old man feels wishing he had really known more and understood what David must have gone through, the love of a son for his steadfast mother, and the hardscrabble existence Raj and his reduced family went through.
I learned about yet another period of history that I had not been aware of before, and felt Raj's loneliness and isolation as a young child. The fact that he triumphs over his background and manages to live a solid, fulfilling, loved life is a testimony to the steel within the human spirit.
This book loses nothing in the translation, and I highly recommend it as an absorbing read.
All the men in the camp drank. I have no idea where or how they bought this drink because no one had enough to eat.
I think that if I had been an ordinary boy with no history - by this I mean a boy who had not spent the first years of his life in a ramshackle hut, who had not lost both his brothers on the same day, a boy who had friends to play with and did not hide in holes dug in the bare earth or on the branches of trees, a boy who did not talk to himself for hours on end, a boy who, when he shut his eyes at night, saw something other than his little brother's body trapped beneath a rock - I would not have stayed there long, this bizarre prison would have bored me. But I was Raj and I liked dark corners and places where nothing stirred.
It was for moments like this that there should be a word to tell what one becomes forever when one loses a brother, a son.
The novel is narrated by Raj who is now seventy years old and facing his own mortality. He remembers when he was a nine year old boy in the summer of 1945, living in Beau-Bassin and grieving the tragic loss of his two brothers. Ignorant of the war, the pograms and the death camps, he has little understanding of the people who live in the prison where his father works as a guard. Then one day, after suffering a brutal battering from his abusive father, Raj finds himself in the hospital within the prison walls. There he meets David, a ten year old Jewish boy who is one of the detainees. The two become fast friends. But when Raj heals, he is sent home to his mother, leaving David behind. When a tropical storm strikes the island, fate offers Raj the opportunity to free his friend…but, freedom comes at a cost.
The Last Brother is a haunting novel which has been beautifully translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan. This book demonstrates the redemptive value of stories, how telling a story can somehow bring healing to our broken hearts. Nathacha Appanah explores grief, loss, loneliness, domestic violence, and the loss of childhood innocence. Her language is evocative and lyrical, heartbreaking and joyous. When Raj’s brothers are swept away in a mudslide, Raj and his mother carry the silent grief of loss within their hearts. It is this loss which informs Raj’s life, draws him to David, and remains with him forever.
Like me, my mother carried the deaths of Anil and Vinod within her, throughout her life, and, like me, she was never able to put this bereavement into words. You can say you are an orphan, or a widow or a widower, but when you have lost two sons on the same day, two beloved brothers on the same day, what are you? What word is there to say what you have become? Such a word would have helped us, we would have known precisely what we were suffering from when tears came inexplicably to our eyes and when, years later, all it took was a smell, a color, a taste in the mouth, to plunge us into sadness once more, such a word could have described us, excused us and everyone would have understood. - from The Last Brother, page 76 -
Raj’s story ultimately serves as a witness to the memory of those who lost their lives on Mauritius during a mostly ignored period in British history. Like the boy Raj, many people are ignorant of the thousands who were left on a remote island and more or less forgotten about for five years. Through the eyes of a child, the story somehow seems that much more horrific.
The novel spans less than 200 pages, and yet when I turned the last page I found myself moved by its powerful images and elegantly wrought prose. The Last Brother is a heartbreaking book, but in the end it is a reminder not to close our eyes to history, but to learn from it. This is a novel which I will not soon forget.
Raj lost his two brothers, one older, one younger, in a major storm, when they could not make it home before the torrential rains. They were literally both washed away. As the last brother, Raj wonders why he survived.
He doesn't understand David's fate. He doesn't know that WW II is being fought. He just wants, needs David's friendship.
The Last Brother is wonderfully written, It is a heart-wrenching story. Told by Raj when he is in his 70s, it is a story of friendship, sadness, regrets, wonder. It is short and sweet, in the most complimentary way.
Raj narrates his story in retrospect, told from the point of view of a man now retired. He tells of the loss of of his two brothers when he was still very young, of his abusive father, and his submissive yet strong mother, but primarily of his friendship with David.
It is a beautiful well written story of friendship, the trust and loyalty the two boys share is enchantingly related.
Normally a book I would avoid due to the "literary" label, the topic intrigued me. Part of my reviewing all these books is to not just read what I know I love but to also stretch my reading into genres I may not ordinarily read. Sometimes I find the book is not for me and other times I find magical little gems like this book.
It is not an easy book to read because Raj does not live an easy childhood. His father is a mean drunk and beats him and his mother.Add to that a family tragedy that rips them to their core and its a wonder this little boy survives. He does not have much but he does have the all encompassing love of his mother.
He manages to find the most unlikely of friends - a young Jewish boy being held in the prison where his father is a guard. Through a series of circumstances Raj and David become friends - the only friend Raj has. Their relationship brings Raj the only joy he has in his life.
The book tells the tale of their very short friendship as a flashback. Raj is an adult looking back over his life. The words flow like a river - sometimes fast and easy and at other times slow and impeded by rocks. The book is a very worthwhile read of a very difficult subject. It truly pulls at the emotions.
This book is translated from French as part of the Lanaan Translation Series. The series is funded through a grant from the Lanaan Foundation, and its goal is to translate to English books never before published in the English language.
It’s the story of Raj, a nine year old local boy whose life is filled with the violence of an alcoholic abusive father. Raj and his family have been destroyed by a horrible event that turned a family of five into three. Father, mother, and Raj move when the father finds work at a prison, Beau-Bassin. A prison that Raj is told is full of “dAngerous ones, the rUnaways, the rObbers, and the bAd mEn.” Raj travels each day to the prison to bring his father lunch, but endlessly curious about the inmates finds a hiding place and observes. What does he see? David, a young boy around the same age walking towards the barbed wire of Beau-Bassin.
“What I saw first was his hair, that magnificent mop of it, which floated around his head but which was certainly his and his alone, in a way that nothing has ever belonged to me, those curls hiding his brow and his way of advancing stiffly, not limping, for all the world as if he were made of wood and iron and his machinery had not been oiled for quite some while.”
David sits and observes the internees as Raj lies in the dirt observing David.
“Suddenly David’s curls began to shake, his shoulders too, and he buried his face between his knees, which he had brought up against his chest as he sat down. Then I heard him crying, I knew it only too well, this sobbing that racks you, that makes you softly murmur oh, oh, as if someone were slowly, very slowly, plunging a knife into your heart.”
The two form a friendship that is doomed from the start, but one that will haunt Raj for sixty years filling him with guilt for what was done, and what should have been done.
The Last Brother takes place during 1944-1945 on Mauritius, an island off the South African Coast. An island seemingly far removed from the horror and violence of World War II, but even this remote area cannot escape . Beau-Bassin was a camp for Jewish refugees from East Europe (Poland in particular) who had tried to reach Palestine in the early 1940s to escape the Nazi persecution. They travelled down the west coast of Africa, passed the Cape of Good Hope, and entered the Indian Ocean. They were taken by the British at this point, brought to Mauritius, and made to stay there until the end of the war. 128 of them died and were buried in Mauritius.
Nathach Appanah has done a beautiful job of taking this bit of history and allowing us to view it through the eyes of these young boys. The writing is lyrical and beautifully translated. This is a short novel that will hopefully mark the beginning of a very long writing career.