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Merle

Merle

The Last Brother - Nathacha Appanah, Geoffrey Strachan Discerning Reader: So, 2 stars, huh? How come?

Me: The most noticeable thing about this book is that it’s sentimental and emotionally manipulative.

Discerning Reader: Is it another Holocaust book?

Me: Sort of. The narrator, Raj, is a old man from Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean. He’s looking back on when he was nine, in 1944-45. The British interned about 1,500 Jews on the island after catching them trying to immigrate illegally to Palestine. Raj befriends a Jewish boy named David who’s locked up in a camp there. So there isn’t any mass murder, but it feels like a Holocaust book.

DR: Is it like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas?

Me: ....Maybe? Never read it, never will.

DR: Okay, well, you’re not being fair. This is a book for adults, about kids, related to the Holocaust. Not only that, it was written in French. Of course it’s on the maudlin side. Anyway, your “sentimental and emotionally manipulative” is another reader’s “tragic and deeply moving.”

Me: That’s true. But this book is way more maudlin than the subject matter requires. For instance, there’s a scene where a neighbor tells the 8-year-old Raj that it’s Christmas. Raj has never heard of Christmas, so she explains it to him. Then he goes home and his dad beats him up. The whole violent scene ends with “It was my first Christmas.” Come on, really? That’s just blatant emotional manipulation targeted at Christian readers. Christmas doesn’t carry the same emotional baggage for Raj and his family.

DR: Are they Hindu?

Me: Unclear. Nobody actually practices religion in Holocaust books. They’re too busy focusing on our common humanity.

DR: You say that like it’s a bad thing.

Me: I think it’s more meaningful for characters to overcome actual differences than for authors to just pretend they don’t exist.

DR: Okay. Back on topic, how’s the characterization?

Me: Iffy. Raj is sometimes all right, when his grown-up self isn’t too busy talking about how horrified he’d have been to see his own son in the position he was in as a kid. David is too angelic to be real. And the abusive dad is just a caricature who walks in the door and immediately starts beating up his wife and kids for no reason.

DR: You wouldn’t be judging that character so harshly if you hadn’t just read Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus.

Me: Maybe. It’s a way more complex and realistic picture of an abusive family.

DR: Anyway, how about the writing style?

Me: It’s not too bad, if you don’t mind some run-on sentences. Listen to this: “He would study the tree, walk around it, try to note where you needed to put your foot, where to catch hold of it with your hand, he was an intellectual, that boy.” One goes on for two whole pages.

DR: Do you have anything good to say about this book? Why did you read it, anyway?

Me: Because I hadn't read anything set in Mauritius. I did learn a bit about the country and there's a decent sense of place. It's a fast read, especially for a book with almost no dialogue--and the lack of dialogue makes sense, because Raj can't remember conversations word-for-word 60 years later. For a minor character, I also really liked Raj's son. So that's how it got the second star.

DR: Okay, I hear what you’ve said, but it’s only 164 pages. I might read it anyway.

Me: Go ahead then. It’s your Saturday morning to waste.