In The Last Immigrant by Lau Siew Mei, an Australian born and raised in Singapore, Ismael battles loss and isolation in a nation increasing intolerant towards migrants.
Ismael, like his creator, is a Singaporean migrant to Australia where he’s established an ordinary life in the suburbs. His work is dull and unfulfilling and does not promise any change or promotion, though it significant as it is in the immigration department deciding who to allow into “Fortress Australia”.
When his neighbour – a friend – commits suicide, Ismail is set adrift on an emotional journey through his Iranian and Peranakan heritage, his stint in the United States and his Australian present.
I found the most poignant aspect of the book to be the death of his wife Nat, who eschews modern cancer treatment for prayer and homeopathic treatment. It’s a slow and painful death and perhaps the strongest element of the book.
After Ismael’s wife’s death, his daughter abandons him almost immediately and his cat disappears. I felt that this second section was distinctly weaker than the first. An onslaught of characters pushes Ismael to the side and I began to wonder whose story was being told. Elements of the supernatural enter and I felt they were not very well blended into the narrative.
Nonetheless, it’s a good addition to the Singapore literary canon and was longlisted for the 2016 Epigram Books Fiction Prize. I’d recommend it to those who like a touch of mysticism with their books.