Book Review: Emma Donoghue’s Akin is a historical story told from the present day

Akin

Akin is Emma Donoghue’s tenth novel for adults, but only her second set in the modern day. Known by most readers for her 2010 novel, Room, Donoghue has published countless novels which examine little known pockets of history, such as 2014’s Frog Music and 2016’s The Wonder.

At first glance, Akin is something entirely different to Donoghue’s back catalogue, including Room which was a claustrophobic literary thriller. On closer examination, Donoghue has pulled off a marvellous achievement, combining her skill for describing the present day with her talent for revealing the secrets of days gone by.

In Akin, widower Noah Selvaggio is adjusting to retirement after many years of being a maths professor. His wife, Joan, died a number of years ago. But, he is still in the habit of talking to her and of taking advice from the ‘algorithm’ of her that still exists in his memory. As the novel opens, Noah’s younger sister Fernande has just died, and as he packs up her belongings, he discovers an envelope full of photographs taken by his mother in Nice during the days of World War Two.

As it happens, Noah is about to return to Nice for a holiday. His first visit back there since he was a child. Before he can depart, he is contacted by a social worker and asked to become the temporary  guardian for Fernande’s grandson, Michael, whose maternal grandmother has just passed away. So begins an uneasy relationship between a disadvantaged, technology obsessed eleven year old boy and a lonely old man, thrown together by circumstance. Noah takes Michael with him to Nice, and together they set out unravelling the mystery of the photographs from Fernande’s belongings.

That Noah and Michael learn from one another and learn to love one another is not surprising. These sorts of relationships often occur in novels. But, what is remarkable about Akin is how easy it is to read. The dialogue and interactions between the two generations avoid cliches. Instead they seem to mimic real life in such a way that it gave me the impression that Donoghue had been out in the world, collecting dialogue from the people around her. From Michael’s childish and often scatalogical sense of humour to Noah’s tendency to over explain everything in an attempt to connect with the boy (and failing), the novel explores the ins and outs of the misconnections between grandparents and teenagers. The characterisation in this novel is near-perfect and I marvelled at the skill involved in getting so deeply inside the head of such a range of characters.

But, it is the historical element of the novel which is most impressive. Somehow, a novel which is set in 2019 or thereabouts and includes Selfies, Snapchat and Instagram also manages to tell a hidden historical story about a group of French resistance members who saved countless Jewish children by hiding them in Catholic Schools under new identities. Noah and Michael find their way around Nice to various museums and historical locations, satisfying Noah’s need to connect with the history of the place, and therefore his own history.

Michael, using his technological skills, helps Noah to do things like reverse-image search buildings. And when it seems as if they may have discovered a dark secret from Noah’s family’s past, he helps him come to terms with the idea that his mother may not have been who he thought she was. As a trade off, Noah must also visit circuses and do other activities that appeal to eleven year old boys, letting go of the Nice he has kept in his mind and embracing the Nice of now.

Akin cements Donoghue in place as an accomplished and versatile writer, and will hopefully net her the kind of readership she has earned and deserves not only for this book but for her backlist.

FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Emma Donoghue’s Akin is available now from Picador Books.

Emily Paull

Emily Paull is a former bookseller and a future librarian. Her debut book, Well-Behaved Women, was released by Margaret River Press in 2019.

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