Reviewed by Harriet
Back in 2010 I read Emma Donoghue’s best selling, prize winning Room. I admired it but I can’t say I enjoyed it. Not only because the story itself, which deals with the experiences of Jack, a five-year-old boy who has lived his entire life trapped, by his rapist father, in one room with his mother, is of course disturbing – but also, perhaps mainly, because I found Jack’s narrative voice intensely irritating – cleverly done but irritating none the less. Now, nine years later, we have another novel with a child protagonist, eleven-year-old Michael, though this time the narrator is Michael’s 79-year-old great-uncle, Noah Selvaggio, a retired, widowed, chemistry professor. And happily I have no quibbles about this one.
As the novel begins, Noah is planning a trip to Nice. The city was his birthplace and his home till he was four years old, after which he was sent to New York with his photographer grandfather. His mother Margot stayed in France and was only reunited with her son after the end of WW2. Noah’s visit, planned to coincide with his 80th birthday, will be his first since he left all those years ago. As the novel begins, Noah is in his Manhattan apartment, completing his final tasks before his flight departs in two days’ time. Then he gets a call which is going to turn his life upside down. It’s a social worker, who is calling to tell him that his recently dead sister’s grandson has been left homeless following the sudden death of his maternal grandmother. Victor, Micheal’s beautiful, hopeless father had died in a motel room eighteen months earlier, ‘his veins full of heroin and fentanyl’, and his mother is serving a six-year prison sentence for possession of illegal substances. The social worker tells Noah she has been ‘exploring Micheal’s kinship resources’, the result of which is that Micheal’s only escape from being sent to a children’s home is if Noah is prepared to take him on, at least temporarily.
And so it is that this strangely matched pair, who have never met before, set off two days later with a rapidly acquired passport for Michael. Michael is bright, observant and streetwise, but he’s also angry and resentful. He spends most of his time glued to his ancient smartphone, on which he plays games that are incomprehensible to Noah. He swears a lot, much to Noah’s distress, and his grammar is terrible. He also demands coca cola, ice cream, churros and hot dogs, and turns his nose up at the typically French food that Noah enjoys. So, instead of the leisurely exercise in nostalgia that Noah had been envisaging, the trip turns into a running battle to keep Michael entertained.
However, there’s another purpose behind Noah’s visit. While sorting through his recently deceased sister’s belongings, he has come across a series of ancient black and white photos, clearly taken by his mother in wartime Nice, which show people and places Noah doesn’t recognise. The photos are intriguing and puzzling, and he soon realises that there’s a link with the German occupation. Was Margot a Nazi sympathiser? Slowly, sometimes with Michael’s help, facts are uncovered and Noah realises he never really knew his mother. He’s also forced to reassess his assumptions about both Michael’s parents, realising he may have made some ill-informed judgements.
Essentially, then this is a novel about learning – for Michael of course, despite his resentment, but also for Noah, who has to rethink much of what he thought he knew about his own family. He makes a point of trying to understand the life Michael has lived, and comes to realise why the boy is so guarded and defensive. They also have to learn to understand each other’s languages – ‘“It was exhausting,” Noah thinks, “having to translate almost every word into vocabulary he imagined an eleven-year-old would know.”’. This also works the other way round, of course – difficulties of communication frequently lead to some entertaining misunderstandings:
“Do you skateboard?”
“Oh, you prefer skating? Ice or roller?”
“It’s called skating, dude.”
“No, but I’m just asking whether you do it on ice or dry land.”
As the week goes by, though, the more Noah learns about the life this boy has lived, the more he comes to appreciate his resilience and his intelligence, not to mention his eye for a good photograph. By the end, though there’s still a lot of uncertainty about what the future holds, this is ultimately an uplifting and heart-warming novel, and a great joy to read.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Emma Donoghue, Akin (Picador, 2019). 978-1529019964, 352pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)