The Last Brother, by Nathacha Appanah. Publisher: Graywolf Press (February 1, 2011). Fiction, 176 pages. Paperback.
Often I wonder how many additional unique stories about WWII remain to be told. Apparently, quite a few. The Last Brother tells about the mass exodus of European Jews turned away at Haifa and deported as illegal immigrants to the British island of Mauritius. In 1944, nine-year-old Raj, a resident of Mauritius, remains unaware of the battles waging beyond the small island he calls home.
While others struggle for survival, this young boy endures daily beatings at the hands of his father. After both his brothers die during a massive storm, Raj and his parents move to another village where his father takes a job as a prison guard. The prisoners are unlike any Raj ever imagined. Varied in age, tired and weary, these white people look identical to him. He becomes rather taken with David, a boy his own age, and when he ends up in the prison hospital after a particularly nasty beating, he and David become friends. Raj misses his brothers and thinks that David could fill the void. He decides to rescue David from prison. The residents of Mauritius, a British island off the southeastern coast of Africa in the Indian ocean, remain deliberately oblivious to the war waged on far away lands. Raj doesn’t even realize the truth about his friend David until he researches the events himself many years later.
In this impressive novel, writer Nathacha Appanah charms and delights in recounting an appalling time told through a child’s viewpoint without precocious airs. She’s created an endearing, courageous character in Raj. Told in a haunting yet magical style, The Last Brother is an intriguing, heartfelt story about loss, belonging and place.