Reviewed by Jowana Bueser
By Emma Donoghue
352 pages. Little, Brown and Company.
Spare a thought for Noah, a widower and retired chemistry professor: he is now stuck with a great nephew he has never seen in his life just before traveling to Nice to celebrate his birthday. The happy childless marriage he shared with his late wife Joan did not prepare him for the role of a guardian.
Spare a thought for Michael, an 11-year-old kid whose mother is incarcerated: he is now stuck with a great uncle he has never seen in his life right after his grandmother died. The short life he has been living has not prepared him for French art, history, and culture.
Together, their unlikely partnership will unmask family secrets in Southern France. You see, while going through the personal effects of his dead sister, Noah discovered several photographs taken by her mother. Spare another thought for Noah: a deep, dark secret is the last thing he needs in Nice.
Best-selling author Emma Donoghue spun a generational tale about a family ensnared in the oppression of the past and the insistence of the future. Dropping the hostile dynamics of the lead characters in the middle of the historical opulence and spirited sceneries of Nice is a cunning decision. She seems to have anticipated that her bickering characters will make the readers forget the noted southern seaside of France. Noah and Michael bicker a lot. They fight over the simplest of things like fart noises and soda. I had to stop reading at one point just to make a note, “My goodness! Can you like, just for one day, not argue? Noah, can you stop correcting his grammar? No one likes a grammar Nazi. Michael, for the love of everything good in life, put your phone down for a moment.” The odd couple squabble became a routine that each time Donoghue requites the readers with an affectionate moment, it is earned and necessary. Noah and Michael are not appealing characters and it may take time to root for them. But once their similarities emerge, you cannot help but cheer them on.
Right after her dedication page, Donoghue included a definition of akin: related by blood and similar in character. Noah and Michael are obviously related by blood but their similarities are far more difficult to determine. Noah, a member of the Silent Generation, is a former professor living a more or less comfortable life. Michael, part of the Generation Z, has lost his parents to illegal drugs and at, some point in his life, lived on food assistance. Donoghue takes her time before she illuminates their similarities: Michael loves taking selfies and Noah adores his grandfather, a famous photographer; both of them are pretty stubborn; both of them understand the pain of losing a loved one; and both of them are fiercely loyal to their family despite their occasional doubts. So, it is incredibly satisfying the first time Noah laughed at the inappropriate jokes of Michael. Or the first time Michael described Noah as “family.”
Donoghue seamlessly infused the story with different subject matters including chemistry, photography, drug incarceration, and the French Resistance. I chose not to discuss these seemingly disparate subjects to avert revealing critical plot points. Though I did drop an innocent clue in the previous paragraphs about one particular plot point.
Throughout the story, Noah and Michael learned secrets about their family that are either deeply hidden or hiding in plain sight. They feel betrayed once truth revealed itself. The concept and the consequence of a secret carry a sense of moral ambiguity. People keep secrets either to protect themselves or to protect others. But secrets are anathema to one important element of relationships – trust.
Akin has chosen wisely not to clarify the moral lines and, instead, succinctly asks, “Should your betrayal be measured by the secrets you’d thought you were revealing, or by what the consequences had been?” Indeed, one cannot change the secrets of the past but we all have to live through its consequences.
Noah and Michael learned that lesson on one particular trip to Nice.
Akin will soon be available at Fully Booked. Email us to reserve your copy in advance.
Jowana applied as a research assistant for Hogwarts but was rejected because her natural sarcasm is considered a form of dark arts. She has since harnessed her powers working as a social media manager for almost a decade. Books keep her calm from the madness and the sameness of life. You can find her on Twitter @jowanabueser.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]