To be truly akin

Some relationships are like Jenga building blocks, one wobbly block placed precariously, on the other. The slightest faltering threatens to bring it all down, writes Sumitra Kannan

Akin by Emma Donoghue

Akin is the story of two distinctly different people forced by circumstances to spend a week in each other’s company. Noah, on the threshold of his eightieth birthday, is looking forward to reviving childhood memories in Nice, when eleven-year old Michael is unceremoniously thrust into his life by Rosa Figueroa, the social worker. It is a do or die situation. Michael’s father is dead, his mother in prison. His grandmother, his caretaker, has just died. The social worker has painstakingly unearthed Noah, his great-uncle, so the child can be spared the vagaries of the system, of which, the less said the better. Noah like Michael, is alone in the world. His parents, his wife Joan, his younger sister and her husband, even his nephew Victor, are all dead.

Noah is no monster, but he is not particularly cut out for parenting either. Parenting is “contracting to love a werewolf” he thinks to himself. His memories of his charming nephew Victor are not pleasant either. Victor had a magnetic pull towards crime. And yet, here is the child, a complete stranger, at his mercy. Gamely, Noah agrees, and decides to take Michael along to Nice for a week. “I am only your problem for a couple of weeks,” says Michael cannily, for the hunt is on for an aunt who would eventually ease things. Noah and Michael are not only separated by age, they orbit different worlds. Noah, a retired professor, has a privileged background. His grandfather, Père Sonne, is a reputed photographer. Michael is on first-name terms with want. His grandmother’s welfare check is what keeps them going, at least for the first part of the month. 

What is a week with a child, you might think. But Michael is no child. He is a precocious person, halfway to adulthood. Absent parents, a strict grandmother, a rough atmosphere at school, has made him a curious combination of tough and tender. The story is of a trip that two vulnerable people take, each with his own coat of burs, that scratch and itch.

Among his sister’s things, Noah, finds a few photographs that seem deliberately vague. Neither are there any names for identification, only an odd scrawling of initials. Certainly intriguing, as the photos are taken by his mother, who was an excellent photographer. The story of the photographs unfolds little by little in Nice.

Michael, is foul-mouthed, obnoxious, and provocative in the extreme. But he is also sharp and observant. Stumbling about in a new country, with a strange old man, he still has his wits about him and happens upon curious connections that escape Noah. Fears surrounding the photographs are so disturbing that they weigh heavily upon Noah, and cannot be spoken out loud. Michael brashly kicks them out into the open.

A week together in Nice, brings this unlikely pair closer than they could have ever imagined. Along with the unravelling of the story contained in the photographs, there is an unravelling of their personal stories, as well. Insolent as Michael is, he has immense respect for his grandmother and her rules, and loves his mother, who he believes has been falsely incarcerated. His only recourse is to use foul language to make him feel stronger than he actually is. His grief and loss have made him flinty. There is a young child in Noah, that remembers the days of Nazi terror and his long, sole journey across the Atlantic, while his mother stayed behind. Michael scratches at the veneer Noah wears, again and again, until it comes off in flakes.

At first, Noah strives to befriend Michael, attempting to participate in his interests.”Is rap the right word for it ? Or hip-hop?” he asks. “Don’t even try” is Michaels’s scathing response. It is when Noah quits being condescending and levels up to Michael’s “It smells like pussy” with a “Like you’d know” that brings them to a new level in their relationship. The final showdown of Michael’s “You’re mean” to Noah’s “You’re savage” evens up the equation. This is a well-crafted, tender story, couched sometimes in the most unsavoury of expressions. An old man and a young boy. The sea is choppy but together they learn to ride the waves. Noah’s relationship to Michael is not unlike the swim he takes.“He was feeling shattered by the swim but also buoyed up by it.” The story of the photographs provides an element of suspense. But the real story is how Noah and Michael move from building a wall to building a bridge to each other. An understanding of how akin they truly are, suddenly dawns on them and us.


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