Natacha Appanah’s The Last Brother is a slender book which covers a very long span of time, from 1945 to the early 2000s. Looking back on his life, Appanah’s 70-year-old narrator Raj recalls a series of incidents from his childhood which have been too painful to confront. Until a spark forces him to face his personal history head-on, the events have been safely repressed for the better part of 60 years.
Like the author, Raj is a native of Mauritius, a small island off the east coast of Madagascar, situated in the Indian Ocean. With his brothers Anil and Vinod—one older, one younger—Raj undergoes a childhood of poverty and deprivation, made more difficult by the whims and rages of a tyrannical father. When catastrophe uproots the family, and incidentally unhinges Dad even more, Raj flees with his parents to an isolated town in the middle of the island. There, living in a small house surrounded by jungle, Raj starts going to school while his father gets a job at a nearby prison and his mother copes as best she can.
Being the sort of energetic boy who tends to get into everything, Raj soon comes to explores the environs of the prison where his father works, and realizes that the prisoners there are an odd lot indeed. For one thing they are white, and for another they seem to be foreigners. Raj has little experience with white people and none at all with non-Mauritians. Among the prisoners is a boy his own age named David, a blond, soulful child who speaks an unfamilar tongue and seems far older than his years.
Events conspire to bring Raj and David together, and for a few brief moments the two boys escape their difficult circumstances—prison for one, poverty for the other—to simply revel in being children. But this happy state of affairs is doomed, as the reader knows perfectly well from the spate of foreboding comments dropped by the septegenarian Raj as he narrates the story. This novel does not answer the question “What happened?” so much as “How did such things come to pass?”
The young Raj has grown into adulthood in the framing story, and brief snippets of history regarding his wife and son help the reader fill in the gaps of his adult life. This is how the author manages to cover so much time in such a compressed space; look-ins to Raj’s grownup years are brief—a few anecdotes about his deceased wife and doting son, some references to his career. Far more time is spent focused on the youngster’s difficult episodes. Thus the scope of a whole life is suggested, but only obliquely.
As expected in such a short book, Appanah’s style is pared down but manages to be concise without feeling minimalist. Partly this is a result of Raj’s narrative style, which combines terseness with run-on sentences consisting of multiple independent and subordinate clauses: “I still remember it, nature and my mother seemed to be on the alert, while I, little Raj, I felt, yes, I think I can say this, I felt good.” When the boys first meet, “I told him I too, had been on a journey before coming here because that was how I saw things at that age, kilometers and oceans made no difference, both David and I had left the places where we were born and had each followed our parents to a strange, mysterious and somewhat frightening spot, where we hoped to escape from adversity.”
Elsewhere, the narrator offers a metaphorical pithiness: “Like an engine starting up, roaring louder and louder, I felt my fear mounting.” Throughout it all, the voice of the old man filters the experience of the child. “[David] would study the tree, walk around it, try to note where you needed to put your foot, where to catch hold of it with your hand, he was an intellectual, that boy.”
Ultimately, Raj’s encounter with David thrusts him into a series of episodes during which his childhood is roughly stripped away. This, as much as the hellish experiences of young David—experiences referenced and suggested by the story but never described explicitly—proves to be the overwhelming tragedy of the book. As the narrator points out, “David” and “Raj” are both names resonant of kings and power, and the insurmountable distance between such an exalted state and the humbling reality of their lives proves to be a powerful irony.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of the story is that it tips its hand too soon; the reader knows from the start the ultimate fate of David, which serves to defuse much of the suspense that might otherwise compel the reader. There are also moments where the forward momentum falters. Despite this, The Last Brother remains a quietly powerful book that illuminates a little-known episode in history, simultaneously bringing to light an often-overlooked corner of the Indian Ocean. Capably translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan, the novel possesses an unusual kind of quiet resonance.