In Emma Donoghue's latest novel, a childless widower and a great-nephew rattle family skeletons in an ancient city.
Noah Selvaggio is a newly retired New York chemistry professor and widower who brings his 11-year-old great-nephew, Michael – a complete stranger to him – on his first visit back to the town where he spent the first few years of his life at the beginning of World War II.
Although Noah is the sole family member who can stop Michael from going into a group home, this wounded young boy initially shows only distrust and ingratitude to his great-uncle.
“How could anyone bear to be a parent? Like contracting to love a werewolf,” says Noah, who was happily childless with his late wife, Joan, and agreed to a couple of weeks’ care only for the sake of his late sister.
But as they stumble through the week, with many missteps, this unlikely pair, 69 years apart in age, solve a mystery using their combined talents and find they are more akin than they thought.
Noah is trying to get to the truth of what his mother did in wartime France, ostensibly staying on to care for her ageing, renowned-photographer father. But under Nazi occupation, Nice was a town where you were either a Nazi “collaborateur” or part of the Resistance.
At the same time, he digs deeper into understanding the problems of the present – why Michael’s mother, who has never offended before, is in prison, and what led to the death of his nephew, a troubled young man whom he fears he may have failed.
Donoghue’s story draws parallels between wartime France and the tough world Michael comes from in New York, where informants are muddying the waters and the police, in Michael’s eyes, are the Nazis of the day.
Donoghue breathes life into her characters – Noah finds he enjoys having someone else to teach and increasingly argues with his late wife’s cautionary voice in his head.
Always adept at expressing a child’s voice, Donoghue reveals the scared-but-loyal little boy behind the prickly, foul-mouthed Michael, who has experienced so much loss in his short life. His phone may seem his most precious possession, but more important are the battered photo album his mother gave him and his “Family Over Everything” tattoo.
This touching novel is about family and the choices you make – how the unselfish ones, where you do what is right but not easy, can add so much to your life.
AKIN, by Emma Donoghue (Macmillan, $34.99)
This article was first published in the January 25, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.