The Last Brother
by Nathacha Appanah
The Staff Recommends is an advertorial publication that only features books we've read and liked. more
Recommended by John Warner
Big is easy to hype. When a book is long and juggles multiple narrators or covers decades, the sheer enormity of the thing can’t fail to impress. It’s like seeing Picasso’s Guernica or Michelangelo’s David in person and marveling at the stamina, at the vision it took to pull something like that off.
So when a little book like The Last Brother comes along, a mere 208 unassuming paperback pages, and it manages to deliver an amazing emotional wallop, you better take some notice. It’s like Picasso deciding to render Guernica on a grain of rice and somehow maintaining all the power of the original.
The Last Brother is the story of Raj, an aging man looking back on his life, searching through the moments that haunt him. Growing up isolated from the rest of the world on the island of Mauritius, Raj is a child during WWII, unaware of anything outside the poverty of his small village and his drunken father’s frequent rages. When his brothers are killed during a sudden storm, Raj and his mother are moved by the father to another part of the island so the father can work as a prison guard. Soon, Raj meets ten-year-old orphan David, one of the “prisoners,” Jewish exiles shipwrecked on their way to Australia. Raj and David bond over their losses, and when an opportunity presents itself, Raj is determined to help David escape.
The most impressive part of The Last Brother has to be Appanah’s handling of the retrospective point of view, the feeling of the older Raj looking back at his childhood self and trying after so many years to understand a life. Even though we’re told the ultimate outcome early in the novel, the book maintains narrative tension throughout because we’re so close to Raj, and the power is not just in finding out what happened, but in being present as Raj remembers them. It’s a different kind of vision than the magnum opus at work here, a peering closer to find meaning in smaller moments and that’s as significant an achievement as any doorstop.
This is the kind of book to pick up on a day where you can set aside a couple of hours for reading, and you’ll find yourself slipping inside Raj’s story and not looking up until you come out the other side.
John Warner is the editor of The Staff Recommends and the author of Fondling Your Muse: Infallible Advice From a Published Author to the Writerly Aspirant.