Originally published: 3 October 2019
Author: Emma Donoghue
Published by: Picador Books
Length: 304 pages
Reading dates: 17-20 September 2019
79 year old retired New York professor and widower Noah is just days away from a trip to Nice, his birth place. Having not been back since he left as a child, he is looking forward to the trip. When a social worker gets in touch asking if Noah can provide a temporary home for Michael, his 11 year old great-nephew, he has his reservations especially as he has not met the boy before. Michael is the son of Noah’s nephew Victor who died of a drug overdose. The boy’s mother is in prison and his grandmother has just died. A passport is rustled up and before they know it, this unlikely pair find themselves on a place to France.
Michael has had a tough life and is very street-smart for a kid of 11, but typical of his age group, he always has his nose stuck in his phone and is pretty good with technology. Noah has recently discovered some old photographs in his sister’s belongings which appear to have belonged to their mother Margot, who stayed behind in France for a couple of years after Noah and his father left for New York during World War 2. Margot’s father was a famous photographer but these photo’s seem to have been taken by his mother. Michael’s tech skills come in handy with helping Noah try and solve the mystery of the photographs.
Noah and Michael clash a lot – Noah is determined that Michael has a good diet and doesn’t drink too much soda and tries his best to limit screen time. He tries to engage with him by telling him facts he has picked up in his years as a chemist and also by taking him around Nice and explaining the history of the town and his memories. Occasionally they find common ground and that is where the book touched my heart.
Although set in the present day, the book looks a lot into the history of Nice during the Second World War mentioning the Marcel Network, a group of brave people who managed to save over 500 Jewish children from concentration camps by hiding them around Nice from 1943 to 1945. There is also the discovery of the informants who turned against their own countrymen. Noah is troubled by the photographs he finds and wonders what his mothers role was during this time.
This book was just wonderful – I think Donoghue captured both Noah and Michael perfectly. Noah is a kind but lonely old man, having no family left and I found the bits where he “hears” his wife’s opinions on things really touching. I felt so sad for Michael – he has had a tough life and I couldn’t help but compare him to my own son who is a similar age. I really wanted the two of them to bond.
I really enjoyed watching their relationship develop but because the book was also about Noah trying to discover what he can about the photographs and about his mother’s role in the war, that isn’t the sole focus of this book and that’s what makes it all the more interesting.
Filled with wonderfully detailed observations, this book is a brilliant study of relationships which at times made me sad but also made me smile. Beautifully written, this is one to savour.
With thanks for Alice Dewing and Picador for the proof copy.
About the author:
Emma is the youngest of eight children of Frances and Denis Donoghue. She attended Catholic convent schools in Dublin, apart from one year in New York at the age of ten. In 1990 she earned a first-class honours BA in English and French from University College Dublin, and in 1997 a PhD (on the concept of friendship between men and women in eighteenth-century English fiction) from the University of Cambridge. Since the age of 23, Donoghue has earned her living as a full-time writer. After years of commuting between England, Ireland, and Canada, in 1998 she settled in London, Ontario, where she lives with her partner and their son and daughter.