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.

Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
Arts and Entertainment
Crowd control: institutions like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are packed

Art
Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices