The Last Gift : A Novel, Hardback
4.5 out of 5 (2 ratings)


One day, long before the troubles, he slipped away without saying a word to anyone and never went back. And then another day, forty three years later, he collapsed just inside the front door of his house in a small English town.

It was late in the day when it happened, on his way home after work, but it was also late in the day altogether.

He had left things for too long and there was no one to blame for it but himself.

Abbas has never told anyone about his past - before he was a sailor on the high seas, before he met his wife Maryam outside a Boots in Exeter, before they settled into a quiet life in Norwich with their children, Jamal and Hanna.

Now, at the age of sixty-three, he suffers a collapse that renders him bedbound and unable to speak about things he thought he would one day have to.

Jamal and Hanna have grown up and gone out into the world.

They were both born in England but cannot shake a sense of apartness.

Hanna calls herself Anna now, and has just moved to a new city to be near her boyfriend.

She feels the relationship is headed somewhere serious, but the words have not yet been spoken out loud. Jamal, the listener of the family, moves into a student house and is captivated by a young woman with dark-blue eyes and her own, complex story to tell.

Abbas's illness forces both children home, to the dark silences of their father and the fretful capability of their mother Maryam, who began life as a foundling and has never thought to find herself, until now.




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Review by

Abbas is a 63 year old man living in the English town of Norwich, after emigrating to the UK from Zanzibar decades before. He is faithful to his wife Maryam, a mixed descent British woman orphaned as an infant, whose marriage to Abbas allowed her to escape from a troubled childhood. His relationship with her and their two adult children, Hanna and Jamal, is more formal and distant than warm and loving.Abbas collapses outside of his front door on the way home from work, and suffers a stroke that both weakens and severely disables him. leaving him mute and unable to walk for long distances. As part of his recovery process, he is encouraged by his medical team and Maryam to write about his past life before he came to the UK. In the process, he makes several comments to his wife that permits him to remember long suppressed memories and closely guarded secrets about his life as a child and young man that have continued to haunt and affect him. His children, particularly Hanna, reject their father's past stories as "immigrant drama", but as Abbas' condition worsens, the four family members attempt to reconcile their shared pain and differences.<i>The Last Gift</i> was a beautifully rendered novel about family, love and secrets, along with the struggle of immigrants to adapt to a new land and to come to terms with the past. However, I found it difficult to connect on a personal level with the characters, as all maintained an emotional distance throughout the book. Fans of Gurnah's prior books will probably appreciate this one, but I would recommend his two Booker longlisted novels, <i>Paradise</i> and <i>By the Sea</i> for those who are unfamiliar with him.

Review by

I’m always drawn to novels that feature an older person looking back over the course of their life, so this had immediate appeal. It tells the story of Abbas, a 63 year old engineer who’s experiencing his first diabetic crisis. His wife Maryam tends him and his children Jamal and Hanna also gather and give some support. The first collapse is followed by a series of strokes and Abbas is left bed bound. As his physical condition deteriorates he (and also his wife) feel compelled to reveal the secrets they’ve long concealed.The story moves across the decades of these two lives piecing together the family history through memories and flashbacks. We learn that as a young man Abbas was from East Africa and became a sailor, who didn’t settle down until he met Maryam in the UK in a Boots store; they eloped and had been together ever since. Over time Abbas became gradually more isolated and silent but he had been a good husband and father. The children have happy memories of his lively stories and sense of fun. Maryam herself had been a foundling, left on the steps of a hospital in the UK. She had lived in several foster homes but knows nothing about her origins. She had got work in a hospital canteen and worked there ever since. Without any kin she and Abbas relied on each other, always aware that they were coloured people in a white world – always feeling different, apart. The children also struggle with this legacy. Both are born and educated in England, yet sometimes they still feel like outsiders. Hanna is in a long standing, but less than perfect relationship with a white man which starts to unravel when she spends the weekend with his family and realizes how racist and condescending they are. At lunch someone is grilling Hanna about her origins. Her boyfriend’s father says “Hold on. You’re about to make our jungle bunny cry.’As Abbas gradually recovers Maryam develops new interests and begins to volunteer at a local refugee centre. She gives Abbas a tape recorder and encourages him to record the snippets he can recall of his early life. Towards the end of the novel she summons the 2 children and tells the truth about their parents. No spoilers here. Hanna doesn’t want to hear about these ‘shitty, vile immigrant tragedies’…but gradually she adjusts. She realizes that her father was a man of intellect and ambition – not just a sailor. She dumps the boyfriend and in the end she and Jamal are considering the possibility of a trip to Zanzibar to see where their Ba came from. That is ‘the last gift’ – the inclination to reconnect with their African past, the full knowledge of the complexity of their parents' lives, and a stronger sense of their own identity. It’s a quiet novel, full of melancholy and regret, but it’s very well written and has much to recommend it. It’s a story about shame, guilt, exile, secrets and identity.

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