Noah Selvaggio, a widower and retired chemistry professor, is about to leave New York for Nice, France, on an 80th birthday trip to discover his childhood roots. He expects to travel alone. Except in Akin by Emma Donoghue, Noah finds himself in temporary charge of his 11-year old great nephew Michael. The trip to Nice goes ahead, the old man and the boy learn new things about themselves, each other, and about the world.
This is effectively a road trip in a book, more of a ‘holiday trip’. The unlikely travelling companions are quite sparky, irritating each other, each reacting wildly to the other’s strange cultural habits. Donoghue does an excellent job with the Nice setting, effortlessly bringing it alive; the gardens, the architecture, the food, the carnival, the French themselves. I loved the grumpiness that both characters demonstrate. Michael’s weary ‘dude’ when Noah tries to educate him about something – ‘it’s a selfie, dude’, ‘eyebleach, dude’; Noah’s repeated requests that Michael eat a proper meal that includes vegetables. Any adult who is not natural with children and who has spent uncomfortable time with an awkward teenager, will identify with Noah’s dilemma. Michael can be gentle, inquisitive, cocky, snide, exhausting and infuriating. Noah needs frequent naps, prefers education to circuses, but he makes an effort because Michael’s father is dead, his mother in prison, and his grandmother has just died. Noah is the nearest relative who can be found. It doesn’t matter that they have never met, and that Noah is 79. Michael is grieving for his grandmother, and the absence of his mother Amber; Noah is grieving for his wife Joan, who pops up occasionally with acid asides when his handling of Michael backfires.
The mismatch between these two males – their ages, education, class, life chances – sounds like a recipe for disaster but the mixture of two opposites causes a chemical reaction involving respect, support, empathy and disagreement about mobile phones. Noah left Nice at the age of four, leaving behind his mother who was caring for her photographer father, to join his father in the USA. When Margot arrived in New York after the war, nothing much was said about the war years. This trip is Noah’s chance to find some answers. So as they identify the locations in Margot’s photographs taken in Nice during the war, Noah and Michael attempt to piece together her life. Was she simply her father’s photography assistant, or something else? A member of the Resistance, a forger of documents for Jewish orphans; or a snitch who betrayed her neighbours to save her family. Is there anyone in Nice who can help Noah and Michael find the truth?
This is a slow-burn book about the relationship between an old man and a pre-teen boy from very different worlds, and is told exclusively from the adult viewpoint. It is about families across generations facing difficult choices, taking risks in the hope of helping family, paying the consequences if things don’t work out; and above all, about the similarities. ‘He and this boy were quite alien to each other, he decided. Yet, in an odd way, akin.’
For me, this is another Donoghue hit.
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AKIN by @EDonoghueWriter #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-436 via @SandraDanby