This is a book that tells a small but beautiful story of unlikely travellers thrown together. Noah is an elderly retired professor from New York who is about to make a long-delayed journey back to the French city of his childhood, which his family left during the Second World War. But at the last minute a wrench is thrown into his plans by the appearance of a great-nephew he has never met. Michael is a street-smart eleven-year-old whose life has been thrown into chaos by his grandmother’s death; his unknown great-uncle is the nearest relative he has while his mother is in prison, and Noah very reluctantly agrees to take temporary custody of the boy until something more permanent can be arranged.
This complicates Noah’s trip, but he ends up bringing Michael along. Also along for the ride: many unanswered questions. Noah has a collection of mysterious photographs taken, not by his own grandfather who was a world-famous photographer, but by Noah’s mother, who remained behind in occupied France for some time with her father after she had sent Noah to safety with her husband in the US. Noah has never learned much about his mother’s life during the war, and now wonders why she stayed behind, what she was doing in France, and what the photographs represent. He is trying to piece together and unpick all of this — and his own complicated feelings about it — while trying to forge some kind of a relationship with a frightened and often resentful young boy. It’s as complicated as you would expect and, in the hands of a master storyteller like Donoghue, very engaging to read. I liked this book a lot.