Bloomsbury, £16.99, 279pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Last Gift, By Abdulrazak Gurnah

In The Last Gift, his eighth novel, Abdulrazak Gurnah returns to the themes of exile and guilt he explored in Admiring Silence, By the Sea and Desertion. He creates psychologically complex characters who are victims of circumstance, buffeted by the vicissitudes of colonialism and the tides of global migration. They are also burdened with a sense of loss and shame borne out of their particular story of leaving and not returning. No one feels entirely innocent; all are marked, if not by a sense of culpability, then by an intimation of unspoken dread.

Gurnah is the master of the particularity of displacement: how, despite the fact that this is an increasingly common state, migration is always an individual experience. His novels show how memory evades history. Gurnah is engaged by the guilt of departure more than he is by the difficulty of belonging. His heroes are story-tellers, rewriting history, telling tall tales in order to remake and escape themselves. Their stories of flight map routes between loss and freedom, old betrayals and new loyalties.

Abbas, a middle-aged chief engineer, is happily married to Maryam, who works in a hospital canteen. They have been married for 30 years, have a daughter, Hanna, a teacher, and a son, Jamal, a PhD student, and live in Norwich. The family story that Hanna and Jamal have been told begins with their parents' first encounter, a meeting of eyes, "a long time ago, in an almost imaginary life", when Maryam was just 17 and Abbas 34, although he claimed to be 28.

He was a slim, dark sailor; she was a factory girl, living unhappily with her adoptive parents in Exeter. "Yallah, let's get out of here, that's what he said. That was the story of their love." The children's questions about his home country were met with the response that "he was a monkey from Africa". Hanna longs for "a story that has a beginning that is tolerable and open, not one "tripped with hesitations and silences". When a diabetic collapse is followed by a stroke, Abbas - driven by intimations of mortality, of unspoken shame, "tired of not talking" - tells the story of his departure from the island of Zanzibar as a young man.

The novel moves between third- and first-person narrative with understated lyricism and economy, slipping from the long past and the present to dream as it explores that enigma. While the mood is dark with loss, all the migrants in the novel succeed in building careers and having lasting relationships. Some become rich. Gurnah is unsentimental and yet warm in his depiction of family life and of Abbas's ardent if fallible paternal love.

The real revelation is that, while it is hard for Abbas and Maryam to break their silence, it even more difficult for their children to listen, or to understand them properly. Hanna "can't bear these shitty, vile immigrant tragedies", while Jamal is anxious to know the nature of his father's guilt.

Except when depicting Hanna's boyfriend Nick's racist upper middle-class family, Gurnah's characterisation is psychologically nuanced. Abbas in particular is a compelling and memorable character, a reluctant, sometimes poetic hero floating out "on a raft made from the timbers of [his] cowardice". The Last Gift reminds us that while "they could no more resist the coming than they could the tide or the electric storm", each migrant carries a very particular legacy from that journey - how it marked them, and the meanings they make of it.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea