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?

The Other Side of Silence

9780399177040_p0_v2_s192x300   When I first met W. Somerset Maugham, I was a precocious fourth-grader who had chosen Of Human Bondage for my book report.  As Sister Eugene Marie calmly pointed out, I had understood most of the plot, but completely missed the point of Philip Carey’s struggle.  Since then, I’ve enjoyed Maugham’s other works – Moon and Sixpence is one of my favorites  – but never again read his masterpiece.  Having found him in a different venue in Philip Kerr’s The Other Side of Silence, maybe I’ll try again.

Maugham is the famous writer who supposedly needs a fourth for bridge in Kerr’s eleventh novel starring the fictional Berlin detective Bernie Gunther.  Kerr writes in a fast-paced staccato, and I’ve read  none of his thirty books or the previous ten in the Bernie Gunther series.  When I sought out his recent interview in the Book Review section of the New York Times – By the Book, none of the books on his nightstand appealed to me, but I did note Jean Stein’s West of Eden as a book I might try.  When The Other Side of Silence opened with – “Yesterday, I tried to kill myself,” I almost stopped reading , but knowing Maugham was lurking in the shadows, I kept on.

In The Other Side of Silence Bernie Gunther, the former Berlin policeman and private eye, has relinquished his former exciting life as a German police officer and detective, and is now working with false papers as Walter Wolf, the concierge at the Grand Hôtel on the Riviera, near the lush residence of Maugham.  Kerr uses Maugham’s homosexuality and his life as a British spy as the bait for a fast-paced mystery detective story.

When a former Gestapo officer, Harold Heinz Hebel, tries to blackmail Maugham with a salacious photo of him in a compromising position, Maugham enlists Bernie’s help. Hebel is also trying to blackmail Bernie, threatening to reveal his identity.  Kerr obligingly fades back to pre-war Berlin in the late nineteen thirties, as Bernie explains his former relationship with Hebel and their shady relationship with the Nazis who were trying to abscond with yet another priceless treasure.  The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustoff, “one of the greatest maritime disasters in history,” becomes a key motivator in the plot – Bernie’s pregnant lover died with over nine thousand others when it sank.

Despite the Mickey Spillane style of writing, I found myself trapped in the story – a mix of Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie, with philosophical notes of Kant and historical references to the Stasi and Gestapo.  The plot twists keep the story exciting and the flashbacks offer historical perspective, with Maugham’s history as a British spy in charge of a team of secret agents playing a key role.  Overall, as mysteries go, it was a fun read, and the ending provides one last surprise – confirmed later in the author’s note as possibly scarier in reality than the fiction.

9781412811729_custom-5f064d218dc602df51d59d4b81f735be7e966631-s300-c85  And the best part – Kerr’s characterization of Maugham awakened my yearning to read a good Maugham story again – maybe Ashenden, Maugham’s fictional adventures of a writer turned spy, based on his own experiences.  I’ve ordered it from the library.