In choosing books to read from around the world, one encounters several difficulties. The first being—what exactly is a country? And also—to which country does an author really belong? If one makes it past these conditions, there’s the last challenge, which is whether a book deeply fraught with political violence is the best representation of this nation, or whether something less historic, yet less war-centered, would be better.
Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in Zanzibar (1948), an autonomous region of Tanzania and just south of Kenya on the east African coast. He immigrated to Britain in the 60s and became an English professor and esteemed novelist, earning a place on many prize lists and eventually receiving the Nobel Prize (2021). While The Last Gift was not our first choice for Gurnah, it was the most easily accessible—demand for his novels has been on the rise since his award. There was also the hope that this novel would strike a middle ground between gritty violence and mild escapism (which it did).
The Last Gift (2011) centers around the life and memories of an old man, Abbas, who is guarding a bitter secret from his family even as he struggles through his last days. His longsuffering wife Maryam is anxious to uncover this secret, though she is searching for closure to her own terrible memories as well. Anna and Jamal, their children, are faced with this double mystery and their own personal troubles. They strive to forge lives for themselves in Britain but feel held back by the existential questions of who they are and where their family came from.
This was a very mixed reading experience. I found the book to be tedious and pedestrian until the last 100 pages or so, where the emotional impact really picked up and I began to connect with the characters more. There are some very poignant questions about family secrets, parents’ origins, and immigrant anxiety which touched me deeply. Of course, the backdrop of colonialism and, at times, racism is also present, a bit too heavy-handed in some scenes, though somewhat balanced by references to oppression in Africa as well (e.g. FGM). While never really graphic, there is very little joy in this book—it is heavy from start to finish. The subplot about Anna’s love life was uninteresting to me and only partially relevant; I found myself wishing for more scenes with Jamal, whose self-collectedness would have provided a better balance in the story than Anna’s negative energy. There are some f-bombs and other language, though the book maintains an elegant literary style. At times, this measured literary style detracts from the humaneness of the story and feels a bit contrived, if I’m being honest.
Overall, I didn’t think this was a bad novel, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it, either. There was nothing really unique about it; the “big reveal” wasn’t much of a reveal, and the majority of characters were pretty dismal. I wouldn’t count it as a total loss, since it did strike a chord in me… namely, that you shouldn’t wait until it’s too late to have important conversations with your parents. I would imagine this is just not Gurnah’s best work, and I’m open to reading other of his novels in the future.