I really enjoyed this book. The charming opening lines with warmth, humour and classical references, pulled me into an old man’s adventure with his great nephew. Noah and Michael are realistic, appealing characters and quickly, I found myself in the best of places – wanting to know what happens in the end.
The story interweaves two popular threads – a search for the meaning of some recently discovered family photos or documents, and an inter-generational struggle. Noah, a widower, is about to go to Nice, his childhood home, with some mysterious photos, when a death leaves him the only relative to look after his newfound nephew, twelve-year-old Michael.
From very different backgrounds, prejudices and assumptions, together with the emotional upsets each has suffered, their journey together makes for a fiery mix. Their lifestyle and underlying survival knowledge could not be more different; a well-off academic contrasted with a twelve-year-old scarred from fighting everyday battles in a drug-ridden neighbourhood.
The themes are topical: for Noah, dealing with ageing and recent retirement. Both he and Michael are grieving; the loss of Noah’s life partner and Michael’s grandmother after his mother’s imprisonment.
In addition, the contrast between their interests is wide: online battle games against a biography; or Michael’s knowledge of modern singers and celebrities against the chemistry knowledge Noah wants to share.
Readers can enjoy images of modern, tourist-busy Nice, as well as contrasts between France and Michael’s poor and dangerous home in New York.
Donoghue has understanding both character’s needs and emotional state, particularly Michael’s anger and rebellion: “… Noah couldn’t handle another argument tonight. It was the repetition that appalled him, the stop-start, petty, Whac-a-Mole wrangling that died down and flared up over and over.”
Daily, they make deals about what places to visit, how much Coke to consume, and what constitutes adequate nourishment, while Michael starts to help Noah identify clues to his mother’s past. There is a subtle parallel to Noah’s developing theories about Michael’s mother and late father.
A further joy is Donoghue’s impressive breadth of knowledge, combining ancient gods and philosophy with truths about the horrors of Nazi occupation and those of a tough suburban drug culture: “Would Anubis accept that argument when weighing hearts against the Feather of Truth… that morality had an element of what could only be described as luck?”
The easy, original style, together with wit, humour and poetry, makes the novel a pleasure: “Not that he believed any old guff about the dead looking down, like spy drones hovering… (she) was humus, dust. And a memory trace… a fingerprint of feeling left on her loved ones.”
In some ways this book seemed to be the first in a series; it answered Noah’s questions about the photo but other questions were raised and left unanswered – for example, mysteries around Michael such as his mother’s imprisonment and his father’s death. In a lesser novel, a sentimental ending (a climax resulting in their getting on well together) might be expected. Donoghue gives only the slightest of hints as to how they might make a lasting relationship.
This realism is the final satisfaction.
Jan Allerton has worked in many jobs, from clerk and typist to teacher, clinical psychologist and counsellor. These jobs have provided excellent training for writing about people. An even better background is a life of reading—mainly fiction. This is still her favourite pastime. Jan started writing only recently and she regrets not having started much earlier. It’s a passion second only to her family. Jan has always lived in Sydney but loves travelling. She sees this as another great opportunity to observe people and their lives.