(4.5 stars) It is hard to imagine anyone reading this novel and not being moved to tears at least once during the action. Set in Mauritius, where the author grew up, the novel is inspired by the internment of fifteen hundred Jews from Europe who, after escaping their countries as the Nazis took over, finally reached Palestine in 1940, only to be turned away by the British rulers of the Palestinian Mandate because they lacked the required "papers." Sent to Mauritius on an old ship, they were confined to a camp under British rule, and three hundred of the men, women, and children died there.
The story opens as a seventy-year-old former resident returns to Mauritius with his son, specifically to visit the grave of his best friend, David Stein, who, we learn in the first ten pages, died in 1945 at the age of ten. The speaker, Raj, of Indian descent, has never been able to come to terms with the circumstances of David's death, and has blamed himself for many years for his own part in possibly hastening David's end. As a child, Raj was shy and lonely, especially after losing both of his brothers in a flash flood, and though he has always been close to his mother, he fears his brutal father, who beats him and his mother. When fate steps in and makes it possible for Raj to come to know a young Jewish orphan, who is interned in the camp where Raj's father is a warden, he protects this secret relationship, willing to risk all for David, who has become his "last brother."
Author Nathacha Appanah tells the story in poetic language of great natural beauty and imagery, and her musical cadences give the novel a flow much like that of an opera. Beneath the structure of the plot, Appanah creates a kind of religious identification with nature and its power to affect humans. Raj's mother is an animist, believing in nature's power to bring about cures through plants, and to even control human life. She regards the red bird who perches on David's head when Raj introduces her to him as a natural, benevolent sign. Raj, however, has also been exposed to the idea of Christmas by the woman for whom his mother does sewing, who has told him about Jesus, and he is intrigued by a savior who loved everyone and wept with the poor, and [had even] performed miracles and walked on water." He is not sure why this God allowed his brothers to perish in the raging waters of a stream near their house. And his friend David exposes him to the ideas of Judaism and the Star of David, though Raj regards the "star" as a natural phenomenon.
Appanah goes beyond the typical "coming of age" novel to depict a world of dramatic contrasts--the horrors of a cyclone contrasting with the beauties of the red bird suddenly perching on David's head, and the brutality of Raj's father contrasting with the loving kindness of his mother and the willingness of the two boys to sacrifice for each other. Sensual, emotional, and sometimes reminiscent of Nobel Prize winner J. M. G. Le Clezio's The Prospector, which is also set in Mauritius, this novel is similar in tone and in its use of romantic images and events to propel the action. Both novels contain elements of melodrama, with the worst of all possible outcomes occurring again and again, despite the hopes and dreams of their protagonists. It is in the vibrantly drawn and sympathetic characters that both of these novels escape the negative connotations of most melodramas, and in the case of this novel, in particular, it is difficult to imagine any reader not being moved by the succession of dark events which affect one small boy. Mary Whipple