Emma Donoghue has written the perfect novel to ease the transition from beach reads to the traditionally more serious issue-driven books of fall.
Wealthy 79-year-old retired chemistry Prof. Noah Selvaggio is planning to visit Nice for the first time since he was a child. He has vague notions of looking for the origins of some photos he inherited from his mother, but mostly he hopes to resolve the feeling of abandonment he’s carried with him his whole life. As a boy, his mother sent him to the United States without her and waited two years to join the family amid the Nazi occupation of France.
But before Noah can leave Manhattan, he discovers a different kind of inheritance — an 11-year-old great-nephew, Michael. A social worker tracks down Noah and insists he’s the only kin remaining who can take care of the boy.
Long story short, Noah finds that he must take the boy with him to Nice.
The first third of “Akin” drags somewhat while Donoghue sets up this elaborate plot to get the odd couple of Noah and Michael on the road together, but once in France, the novel soars.
The street-wise Michael’s harsh upbringing and penchant for profanity alarm the well meaning but rather fusty Noah, and their banter provides much comic relief. At one point, Noah asks of his great-nephew’s tattoo: “Is FOE supposed to declare, what, that you’re enemies with the whole world?”
But tables are turned when Michael replies haughtily, “You’re so ignorant, you disgrace me.” The boy then explains FOE stands for “Family Over Everything.”
Meanwhile, their quest to find out what caused Noah’s mother to leave her son for two years takes on serious historical weight as Noah and Michael investigate various sites of the Nazi occupation of Nice.
They are forced to contemplate some difficult questions: Was Noah’s mother a collaborator? Or perhaps having an affair with a Nazi? Or was something else motivating her?
Donoghue is perhaps best known for her bestselling novel “Room,” which dealt with the horrific consequences of abduction and rape. In her new novel, Donoghue tackles issues of the injustices of history and the present criminal justice system, but the overall tone remains hopeful. “Akin” makes for an intriguing trip to Nice for the armchair traveler who is not quite ready for the summer to end.
May-lee Chai is the author most recently of a short story collection, “Useful Phrases for Immigrants.”
By: Emma Donoghue.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 335 pages, $28.