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The Last One by Fatima Daas review – a hypnotic debut | Fiction in translation

The Last One is French-Algerian writer Fatima Daas’s autobiographical debut novel, translated beautifully into English by Lara Vergnaud. Fatima Daas is both the pseudonym of the author and the name of the narrator in this hypnotising, lyrical book. Fatima lives in the majority-Muslim Parisian banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois, with her parents and sisters, who were all born in Algeria. She’s the only one born in France, the youngest child in the family; she is “the last one”.

Almost all of the numerous chapters, some less than a page, start with an iteration of “My name is Fatima Daas”, followed by a couple of words, or a few sentences, expanding on aspects of her identity or lineage. This rhythmic invocation is powerful, though occasionally I felt it contributed to an impression of explaining details of her existence specifically for a non-Muslim readership. For me, this is always unnecessary in a work of fiction, but seemed especially so considering the intimate specificity of Fatima’s world.

What information, guidance or meaning, then, is contained in the name Fatima Daas, which we read more than 70 times in under 200 pages? This is one of many burning and burdening questions of identity, tradition, heritage, religion and sexuality that Daas’s narrator deftly explores in a nonlinear love letter to embracing all aspects of herself – or at least trying to before she self-destructs.

The creation of a spiritual self that is not in conflict with a sexual self, and the unwavering desire for these two selves to be joined harmoniously, is gorgeous and galvanising to read, even as Fatima suffers and doesn’t fully succeed in her attempts. Fatima is a lesbian and a practising Muslim. In her youth, she wishes to be an imam: “The Koran soothes me.” Her mother sharply tells her that this is not possible for girls.

As Fatima grows, it becomes apparent that this patriarchal, Islamophobic, capitalist society that keeps her on a seemingly never-ending loop of failing public transport will do far worse than derail her dreams of being an imam. And then later, the pain is visceral when she realises that a detached, violent father and a severely anxious mother are even more significant obstacles in her quest for self-acceptance than the sociopolitical barriers she has railed against.

Stylistically, the mini-chapters resonated with the way my brain has been rewired over the last few years. Daas’s snippets of memory build up a picture of her life non-chronologically, bit by bit – it feels like becoming friends with someone via social media. You glimpse their home, read their opinions, look at their baby photos, learn about their family. You never really know them fully, but at the same time you know them better than some of your oldest friends.

The Last One was published in French in 2020 and has been showered with accolades and prizes. I hope it will meet a similar reception in its English translation, as we push against pigeonholing and towards a reclamation of all the many things we are and can be.

The Last One by Fatima Daas, translated by Lara Vergnaud, is published by Small Axes (£10.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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