Akin by Emma Donoghue

The premise of an old man suddenly finding he has a long lost young relative seems familiar, but Emma Donoghue reframes the possibilities in Akin with a 79 year old retired science professor, seemingly alone in the world, who has decided to revisit his birthplace in France, and an eleven year old street smart boy whose father is dead and mother is in jail. With the backdrop of the French Riviera and Nice, Donoghue weaves a compelling tale of family, friendship, and last chances.

Shortly before he is scheduled to fly to Nice on a nostalgic trip and to celebrate his eightieth birthday, a phone call disrupts Noah’s plans. I had to laugh when Noah assumed the call was a scam, as I would have, but it is really a social worker desperately trying to keep his sister’s grandson from being institutionalized. After a visit to the boy’s mother in jail and an expedited passport, the two are off on an adventure promising to change both lives.

Photography plays an important role in the story.  Noah’s grandfather was a famous artist with several of his pictures hanging in museums, and his mother assisted him before the war, even remaining in France after she shipped her four year old son to America as World War II crept closer to their home in Nice. Rummaging through his dead sister’s belongings, Noah discovers an envelope with photographs of the area during the war.  Determined to discover more about the time and place, he brings them along on the trip, creating a quest for the two as they travel.

I have been to France, especially Paris and Provence, a number of times, but never to Nice, so Donogue’s thorough description of the area, and its place in history, was fascinating. Although the role of the French in the war has been the subject of many books, I had never heard of the Marcel Network of over 500 Jewish children hidden around Nice and given new names and identities to protect them from the Nazis. Donoghue weaves historical facts into the story but she balances the horrors of war with light and endearing scenes of the Carnival, the circus, eating ice cream, great uncle and grand nephew getting to know each other through small pleasures and unlikely commonalities.

Michael is a tech savvy eleven year old, encrusted with the sadness of having lost everyone dear to him – his father died of an overdose, his mother incarcerated for dealing drugs, his beloved grandmother dead.  Donoghue neatly captures his defensive acting out behavior, and softens it with a young person’s reluctant willingness to be awed.  His character is a elegant balance to the old man who is prepared for death at any time, and a filter for Noah’s discoveries.

As Noah connects the photos to actual places, he begins to assume the worst about his mother.  Was she a spy? Worse, was she helping the Germans?  The quest becomes an investigation to absolve or convict his mother.

Although Noah’s longwinded spontaneous lectures get a little tiring, and Michael’s preoccupation with selfies gets a little annoying, the story offers more than a perspective on a strange male bonding. The women in the story evolve from the background to the more important focus.  The ending is predictable but their journey is not.  Donoghue offers much to consider and discuss – what is family anyway?  And what does it take to risk making a commitment?

What’s Your Inspiration?

What inspires an author or an artist?

For Jay McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City, it’s an Acheulean hand ax, a Stone Age tool that looks like a carved rock – easily held in the hand – the world’s first man-made object. McInerney has one from South Africa and notes that it is…

“…something I pick up when I am writing…when {my} own creative juices are clotting up…{I} toss it around when I am stuck.”

David Coleman in his article for the New York Times – Back to Basics, Real Basics – identifies the ax as one of the items from Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects. Anthropologists note that making the ax ” took intelligence, skill, strength, and patience” – all attributes that could be helpful to a modern day writer.

Do you have an object that inspires you?

A History of the World in 100 Objects

Since having an encyclopedia on the shelves was replaced with instant access through the internet, reference books have become obsolete – almost.  One worth having on your shelf is the British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, based on a BBC radio series narrated by  Neil MacGregor, Director of the museum. This ambitious undertaking is over 700 pages – full of pictures and explanations of each artefact.

Beginning with “Making us Human,” MacGregor divides civilization’s story into 20 sections, each with five pieces representing eras that range from 7000 years to under 100 years.  Sections include obscure chopping tools, pots, and writing tablets, as well as more the more famous Rosetta Stone and Hawaiian feather helmet.  An early Victorian tea set makes the list, with an explanation of the upstairs/downstairs politics behind the origins of this British custom.

Although I am still slowly making my way through this tome, I had to skip to the last pages to discover what MacGregor identified as the 2010 (date of publication) representative.  He notes…

“What single object can possibly sum up the world in 2010, embody the concerns and aspirations of humanity, speak of universal experiences and at the same time be of  practical, material importance to a great many of us in the world now?”

The solar-powered lamp and charger outbested the mobile phone, because “without electricity mobile phones are useless.” The explanation of solar energy “giving 1.6 billion people without access to an electrical grid the power they need to join the conversation…and a new level of control over their environment..{that can} transform the way in which they live” makes a good case for the future of the world’s poorest populations.

MacGregor tells a story about each item, pointing out details as though you were taking a tour with a witty docent, and his conversational style delivers the mystique of the ages, whether or not you are a student of history or anthropology.  The book is hard to put down once started, but the wealth of information is so overpowering, you must thoughtfully stop now and then to digest the historical significance and insights.

A History of the World in 100 Objects is a book worth having on your shelf to dip into regularly as a reminder of civilization’s ongoing story.