It's said that you are as sick as your secrets, and this layered and labyrinthine novel from multiple Booker shortlister Abdulrazak Gurnah supplies much evidence to that particular notion. Abbas, father of the idealistic Jamal and the hot-headed and anglicised (H)Anna, and husband to the apparently lifeless and lacklustre Maryam, is - quite literally - struck down in the novel's second sentence.
While recovering from a diabetes-induced stroke, the poison of a long-held secret slowly seeps from his subconscious and leaks out of his gabbling mouth, threatening, in his view, anyway, to destroy his family. "I floated out [of his old life] on a raft made from the broken timbers of my cowardice," he intones. This event is the heart of the novel but, paradoxically, not its entire focus, more just the scaffolding that Gurnah uses to hang masses of other narrative and thematic material off.
He expertly sets up and explores the family dynamic of these deeply different individuals, then lets us into their lives. We see immigrant issues of a sense of self, of mistaken, misplaced or simply non-existent identity and straight-out racism dissected like a cadaver on the operating table in a kind of "no organ left unturned" fashion, firstly through foundling Maryam and stowaway Abbas' experiences of 1970s England through to the 9/11-inflicted children and their partners.
While Hanna (she drops the "H" in a symbolic, student-inspired act of defiance) can't bear the "ugly immigrant tragedies" as both Abbas and Maryam shed their secrets, Jamal is more patient, forthcoming and perhaps more understanding, likely because his PhD in the pattern of immigrant movements allows him a fascination with his own history; whereas modern Anna, with her arrogant, upper middle class English academic boyfriend, just sees hurt, hate and shame.
She has "given up trying to unravel her unknown mongrel origins, and interested herself in what she was in her life, not what she came from". Jamal, younger yet more mature, knows there are "millions of us, who do not fully belong in the places in which they live but who also do in many complicated ways. You could find happiness in that." That happiness is the quest of all involved here.
Gurnah is masterful in threading the themes around the characterisations and back, while never dropping a steady narrative pace, drip-feeding Abbas' past in Zanzibar and his shameful events to us, allowing us to evaluate the man, the history and the context, without ever getting overwhelmed.
What ultimately sets The Last Gift apart from a lot of this crowded genre is that Gurnah was born in 1948; this is no Hanif Kureishi here, but a man who, a little like Abbas himself, has seen it all and is slowly, but brilliantly, telling his - and others' - stories with a skill and compassion that is as rare as it is compelling.
Michael Larsen is an Auckland writer.