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The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah

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THE LAST BROTHER

By: Nathacha Appanah, translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan.

Publisher: Graywolf Press, 176 pages, $15.

Review: A moving account of brotherhood, both biological and in the context of war and redemption.

Brothers lost and gained

  • Article by: MATTHEW TIFFANY
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • January 29, 2011 - 7:09 PM
Most of us come of age thinking that all children fall into one of two groups: those with siblings, and those without. I landed on the only-child side of the fence, where the grass is dry, brittle, a pale yellow-green. (In comparison.) The kids on the other side always appeared to be having more fun, but they confided jealousy of my situation -- I had my own bedroom, there was no bickering over the Christmas bacchanalia, no sharing my parents' attention.

But there is another possibility, one best considered out of childhood -- that of the only child who formerly had siblings, but lost them. "The Last Brother" concerns a 9-year-old boy, Raj, who lives with his parents and two brothers on the island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, until a flash flood carries away his older and younger brothers, leaving Raj and his mother alone with his tyrannical, abusive father. Raj feels the jarring loss of his brothers at every turn, but when the remaining family moves to a different town as a result of the father's new job as a prison guard, the story shifts in tone.

Nathacha Appanah has set "Brother" in the mid-1940s, and the father is guarding Jewish detainees. When one of the regular beatings Raj receives lands him in the prison hospital, he meets David. Close to his own age, David is portrayed as closely to being an angel as is narratively possible without dipping a toe into magical realism. Raj forms an immediate bond with him, places his own newly realized hope for finding some kind of peace squarely with David and their relationship. Another storm provides an opportunity for David to escape, and with Raj they flee into the forest, trying to escape the father, the guards, their family losses, history.

The drive of the narrative doesn't involve plot; it's established right from the start that Raj lives to be an old man, reflecting on the story at hand. David does not survive their escape into the woods. What pushes this story forward is Appanah's deft, clear-headed examination of brotherhood -- how loss, redemption, hope and willfulness can come together so potently as to make anything seem possible, even in the face of overwhelming odds.

Raj is not successful in saving this new "brother" he has found -- but that he tried, despite those odds, provides a minimum of relief from the sense that history is simply having its way with us. This is no small thing, and Appanah's novel provides it with the precision and beauty of a diamond.

Matthew Tiffany is a mental health therapist and writer in Maine. He blogs at condalmo.wordpress.com.

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