The Last Brother, By Nathacha Appanah

A lush and lyrical boy's own tale
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The Independent Culture

Many readers will enjoy this lushly beautiful child's-eye tale of resistance to injustice simply as a universal fable of two boys thrown together in friendship and solidarity against a savage adult world. It also half-reveals an extraordinary episode from the Second World War, but through a lyrical mist that never clears away.

On a tropical island under colonial rule, young Raj, his two brothers, and his cowed but loving mother, endure their father's violent rage. He takes out all the humiliation of a poor cane-cutter's life in attacks on his family. Looking back in sadness, Raj evokes their grim toil in a wildly gorgeous landscape (lavishly evoked) and, at home, "the stench of alcohol and tears".

When a flash-flood kills his brothers, the surviving family moves to a house beside the prison where his father finds work as a guard. Raj becomes a child of the woods, cultivating his "solitary self" and spying on the prison inmates.

Mysteriously, the jail houses a large group of distraught Europeans from far across the seas. Raj befriends one, the frail, angelic David.

This "gift from heaven" holds out "the promise of a less lonely life". A freak cyclone leads to a prison break-out. The lads go on the run but tragically lose their way in the enchanted, accursed forest, its perils brought to life in dream-like scenes. A lifetime later, Raj recalls their brief escape and tries to apprehend the big picture behind it.

Now based in Paris, Nathacha Appanah grew up in Mauritius. On that island, between December 1940 and July 1945, more than 1,500 Jewish refugees who had fled Nazi-occupied Europe by sea were interned by the British authorities after they had been turned away from Palestine.

The Last Brother touches on this history sketchily, and partially. We don't hear, for instance, that 200 detainees chose to join the Allied forces. Instead, in Geoffrey Strachan's sumptuous translation, we follow a fairy-tale flight from persecutions, small and large, that bonds two boys from different ends of a suffering earth.