Review: "Akin"

Emma Donoghue, author of the best-selling novel “Room,” writes of the relationship and family history of an 11-year old boy and his great-uncle in “Akin.” It tells the poignant story of an older man who discovers truths about his mother while on a quest to find her story, and of a boy who learns lessons about unconditional love.

Noah Selvaggio has never met his great-nephew Michael, the grandchild of his deceased sister. Michael’s father, Victor, alienated his family with his drug use and frequent absences. Amber, Michael’s mother, is in prison for her own drug use. When Victor dies from an overdose, Noah becomes the only relative hesitantly willing to care for the boy, for what Noah presumes will be a week or two.

Noah gets the call about Michael and his need for shelter from a state caregiver who is reluctant to turn Michael over to the “system” which would really be a children’s warehouse. Noah, at age 80, is preparing for a trip to Nice to visit the birthplace of his parents who immigrated to America during World War II. The caregiver encourages Noah to take Michael to Nice with him.

Noah travels to Nice carrying old, but newly discovered pictures that Noah hopes will provide background to his mother’s life in Nice. Noah was sent to America in the early ‘40s, two years before his mother joined him and his father. Ostensibly, Margot, his mother, stayed as an assistant to her own father, a renowned photographer famous for his books on photography.

The books support Margot’s claim that she was her father’s assistant. Noah thinks it is odd that his mother, in good health when he was little, comes to America blind in one eye and with a pronounced limp.

Young Michael’s attitude and language would test the patience of any adult, but Noah only corrects him during the trip on his use of adverbs. Noah, a widower and never a father himself, sees the hurt, uncertainty, and fear in Michael’s “acting out.” At times, Michael shocks with his foul language and disrespect toward Noah. He presents a blasé attitude towards the cultural city of Nice. Yet Noah sees the boy’s artistic ability evident in his phone photo shots. He witnesses Michal’s disarmingly truthful and insightful observations of people and places, and the boy’s deep fear of being left alone or becoming lost.

Noah does learn more about his mother and her involvement with the war and the French resistance. Was she a spy or a savior? Michael, with his keen eye for detail, is able to see Noah’s family photos with a fresh eye, and is a significant help to Noah as he uncovers secrets about Margot.

As the week in Nice ends and the travel back to New York begins, Noah learns details about Michael that surely, if nothing changes, will lead him to a life that may end as disastrously as that of his parents. What will an 80-year-old man decide to do for an 11-year-old child facing a forlorn future?

The couple’s travels through Nice include visiting actual locations that were used by the Marcel Network, an organization that was responsible for hiding children from the Nazis between 1943 and 1945. Donoghue has done an excellent job of blending history with an unforgettable story of a young boy and an old man. This is a book not to be missed.