Book review: ‘Akin’ by Emma Donoghue


Noah Selvaggio would turn 80 in a few days. As a personal birthday present, he was booked on a flight to Nice, France, the community of his birth.

When the phone call came asking him about his great-nephew, Michael Young, an immediate fear ran through him. And the fear proved justified. Since the drug death of his father and incarceration of his mother, Michael had been living with his grandmother. She had just recently died, leaving Michael homeless. As the relative living nearest, Noah could save young Michael from going into the system. Besides, the only other option was an aunt who had three children of her own, and it was doubtful that she could reasonably be expected to accept another. Reluctantly, Noah said he would accept a short-term responsibility in a little over two weeks, when he was back from the trip. That timing would result in foster placement.

The trip had been long planned and reservations made. He would not deny himself the trip. So, against his better judgment, he added reservations for an 11-year old boy whom he didn’t really know.

Noah’s mother had been a photographer as well as an assistant to her photographer father. She had stayed in Nice to take care of her ill father when Germany invaded France. Her husband had been forced to immigrate to America with her father’s photography to protect it from the Germans. When her father died, she sent her son, Noah, to live with his father and remained in France for two more years. Those years were blank, never mentioned by his mother.

Recently Noah had become aware of an envelope with several unidentified pictures, obviously taken and developed by his mother, for which there seemed to be no reason that they were kept. The photos almost certainly were from Nice; perhaps he could identify them on this trip and learn a little more about his mother’s early life.

Noah was just trying to get to know Michael as they were ready to board the plane. When Michael discovered that Noah had been a chemist, “Doing explosions, and shit, in your lab?” Noah had to explain that explosions were not a topic for an airport, and it took more than one reminder. In an attempt to entertain the lad, “So the doctor tells the patient, ‘I have good news and bad news.’ The patient wants to hear the good news. The doctor says, ‘They’re going to name a disease after you.’”

Michael’s interests lay in the tech world. His phone and its games were his main interest, despite the new experience and new relative. Noah did his best to distract him, calling attention to their surroundings, and after the landing, to the historical significance of Nice. Noah was primarily concerned with Nice during the German occupation. That didn’t keep him from constantly highlighting Nice’s past for Michael. He had been a teacher, after all. On occasion Michael had to say no more education today. They adjusted to one another reasonably well once Noah realized he had to pick his battles. And Michael’s young eyes and mind were often the first to notice a landmark from the photo and even to speculate on its significance.

Given Noah’s age, Michael asked him how long he thought he would live. That led to a discussion about shared DNA. Michael theorized that a person would get half from each parent. “ … It’s more like shuffling two packs of cards together and dealing enough for a new pack.”

We still haven’t dealt with why the mother was in prison or what Noah’s mother’s actual role was or why the pictures were taken or what will happen to Michael. It’s all in “Akin.”

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