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book review

Emma Donoghue explores and crafts a unique relationship in her latest novel Akin.Handout

  • Title: Akin
  • Author: Emma Donoghue
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Pages: 352

At first blush, Emma Donoghue’s Akin is a novel about an odd couple, an old man and a young boy thrown together by circumstances neither of them would have chosen. As the title might suggest, however, they are far more, uh, akin than they are different.

They are, for starters, actually kin: Michael is Noah’s grand nephew, the child of his recently deceased, historically troubled nephew. They are also both effectively alone in the world: Noah a solitary widower since his wife’s death a decade ago, Michael one piece of paperwork away from being a ward of the state after his maternal grandmother’s death while his mother is serving time for narcotics charges. (That’s where Noah comes in. Yes, he’s 79, and no, he’s never met Michael but he’s the only relative standing between this 11-year-old and a group home. Cue his reluctant commitment to shelter his grand nephew while a social worker tries to get in touch with a transient aunt.)

More than anything, however, Michael and Noah are alike in that both of them have an unresolved mystery surrounding one of their parents. For Michael, it’s his dad’s apparent death of an overdose, just days after he’d given his son a maroon chip, marking 90 days of sobriety. For Noah, it’s a series of photographs found among his mother’s effects. They’re not by Pere Sonne, his famous photographer grandfather. They appear hastily taken, shots of random places, the backs of unrecognizable people, children’s feet, what looks like an identity photo for a little boy Noah knows is not himself. Noah does know they’re taken in Nice, and, given he’s got nothing else to fill his days, it’s a good enough excuse to finally go back to the French city he fled as a child during the war. Michael enters his life days before this trip and – because what else do you do with a strange child you’ve just met? – is dragged along with Noah on this pilgrimage.

That quest takes Noah, Michael in tow, to some of the darker parts of the south of France’s history under Nazi occupation. Was Noah’s mother a collaborator who took a German officer as her lover? A member of the Resistance who risked her life to save Jewish children? Or was she what Noah had always assumed she was: A dutiful daughter who rode out the war, caring for her elderly father until he died? To say more, of course, would be spoiling this gentle pleasure of a novel.

And that’s what this book is: A quietly delightful read, perfectly calibrated for deep enjoyment. It has none of the high-stakes drama of the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted Room or the magical gimmickry of The Wonder, but Akin will satisfy Donoghue-ites just as much as her previous best-sellers. It succeeds, you see, because it just does so many things right, a melody that’s pleasing simply because there are no off notes. Donoghue, who lived there for two years, captures Nice during Carnival vividly, detail after detail painting a portrait so real the combined smells of urine and socca seem to waft off the pages. There are insertions – of everything from knock-knock jokes to heartbreaking fragments of history and genuinely interesting science facts – that work harder to pull you into this world than any amount of edge-of-your-seat plotting. Her portrayal of an 11-year-old in particular is almost note perfect – an equal combination, I surmise, of Donoghue’s enduring fascination with the inner lives of children (a topic that has preoccupied her in nearly everything she’s written, including her children’s fiction) and the fact that she’s a parent herself. You don’t get the cadence and vocabulary of a 2019 tween this bang-on without having spent a lot of time with them.

Crucially, Donoghue crafts a believable bond between Noah and Michael. They’re an odd couple, sure, separated by generation, class and an ability to comprehend selfies, but this funny pair grow genuinely fond of each other.

Just as I think you will of them.

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