Akin (2019) – Emma Donoghue

Title:Akin
Author:Emma Donoghue
Publishers:Picador/Pan Macmillan
Date of publication:2019
Star Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Pan Macmillan South Africa kindly sent me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review

Noah Selvaggio is about to turn 80. At 79 years old he is a retired professor living in New York City, and a widower with no children. His only sibling, his sister Fernande, has just died and leaves him some money in her will. With that money Noah buys a plane ticket to Nice, France and plans a trip to celebrate his birthday during the city’s famous Carnival. In 1942 when Noah was four years old he left Nice with his father and moved to New York leaving his mother Margot behind in France for two years with her own father, a famous photographer. His wife Joan though deceased is Noah’s constant voice of reason, and often guides Noah through his decision making. Armed with a prematurely packed suitcase and an envelope of odd photographs that belonged to his mother, Noah is ready to return to the city of his birth for the first time since he was a child.

Days before he is about to embark on his adventure, Noah receives a phone call from a social worker desperate to find a temporary guardian for an eleven year-old boy whose grandmother just passed away, and whom it turns out is Noah’s great-nephew. Michael’s father Victor, Noah’s nephew died of a drug overdose a few years before, and his mother Amber is in prison. Michael has no family other than an aunt who can’t afford to take on Michael. Noah, having become accustomed to a life of solitude and structure is appalled at the thought of taking care of Michael, even more so when he realizes he will have no choice but to bring the boy with him on his trip to France.

Whilst Michael’s home life has quite clearly been very disruptive and traumatic, he is still a typical 11 year old boy living in a world of taking ‘selfies’ and spending hours on his mobile phone. Angry with his suddenly very limited options and the notion of spending an unspecified amount of time with a stranger Michael is confrontational, rude and often quite offensive. That being said he is also sensitive and fiercely loyal.

Noah’s own reason for visiting Nice begins to change as he becomes more invested in discovering the meaning behind his mother’s photographs. The history and beauty of Nice are often overshadowed by the city’s very violent and tragic past, and the possibility that his mother may have been involved on the wrong side of those wishing to defy the Nazi government. At the time Jewish people were brought to France to sit and await the gas chambers. Driven by the need to discover his mother’s real reason for remaining behind whilst he and his father made a life for themselves in the US all those years ago, Noah becomes entrenched in the history of Nice, and the famed Marcel Network that helped rescue and hide hundreds of Jewish children from being sent to the concentration camps between 1943 and 1945.

The two unlikely companions travel around Nice suffering through their own internal battles, as well as learning to adjust to the enormous generation gap that though seemingly wide on the surface is not always as broad as it may at first seem. Noah and Michael are both very strong characters and have found themselves with very little or no family around them. As they wander through the streets of Nice tasting the various foods and observing the entrenched history that despite the gaudy displays of the impending carnival often lends a dark shadow to the sunny French Riviera city, they both begin to acknowledge their common ground: loss. It is however through the common goal of solving the mystery of the photographs, and the story of Noah’s mother’s incarceration that they begin to rely on one another to fix what seems to be broken in their worlds.

Donoghue has always been very in tune with the human condition, and is really good at subtly showcasing the tenderness between characters. The often witty banter between Noah and Michael highlights an underlying struggle that both refuse to admit until the very end, and even then we are left with the knowledge that relationships are always open-ended. A beautiful story of connection, grief, acceptance and love in the most sunny of settings.

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