arly on in Akin, Emma Donoghue’s 12th novel, we are told that her 79-year-old protagonist Noah took up smoking after the death of his wife because “he’d just needed something else to do with his hands when they reached for her and closed on nothing”. This is typical of Akin: the words roll off the page, the image is tender and sad, conjuring not only the awfulness of that grasp on emptiness, but its repetition too. But then I started to overthink it. What exactly did Noah do to his wife when reaching for her? Was it tied up in coffee drinking, like his smoking habit? Did he reach for her seven or eight times a day? My questions became absurd, but this all points to a broader problem: like a previously non-smoking scientist suddenly reaching for a fag packet, something about Donoghue’s story doesn’t feel quite real.
It is the complex and soulful characters Donoghue creates that are most memorable in this novel. In a moving early scene, Noah takes Michael to an art gallery in New York, then the gift shop. The boy, who hasn’t been exposed to culture before, or to such an “old white” neighbourhood, feels out of place. Noah watches him lean against the wall, “arms wrapped around himself as if he didn’t trust them not to knock something over”.
In the epigraph to Akin, Emma Donoghue’s intelligent new novel, the author informs us of the two main meanings of the title: “related by blood” and “similar in character”... By the novel’s close, with many nuances of “akin” so thoughtfully explored, the opening gloss feels more like a tease than a definition.
Donoghue contrives a neat comedy of errors as Noah tries to make sense of Michael’s world. “Time of the month” isn’t about periods but the welfare cheque, and Michael’s tattoo “FOE” doesn’t mean, as Noah fears, that he’s an enemy of society, but stands for “family over everything”. As Michael snaps selfies on his phone, he echoes the fictional French photographer Père Sonne, from whom they are both descended, and his inherited visual savvy helps Noah understand the old photographs, which indicated that his mother might have been a Nazi collaborator.
Atmospherically, [Donoghue's] two novels could hardly be further apart: Room is lightless, squalid, oppressive; Akin is set for the most part amid the restaurants and promenades and bright, caressing sun of the French Riviera. But the more I turned the pages, the more evident the similarities became... Themes of imprisonment run through both novels, as do questions of what it means to be related. If this book demonstrates Donoghue’s range as an author – and it does, in spades – it also shows her circling back to a handful of key concerns. In Akin, she has found a way to consider the subjects of love, freedom and family from a freshly illuminating perspective... If Room forced home truths on us, about parenthood, responsibility and love, Akin deals with similar subject matter more subtly, but in the end just as compellingly; like Noah and Michael, the books are superficially different, but fundamentally connected. This is a quietly moving novel that shows us how little we know one another, but how little, perhaps, we need to know in order to care.
Akin sparkles with Donoghue’s clear, often witty style. We recognise familiar themes and are introduced to new ones such as the challenges of an aging society, climate change and the destabilising effects of new wars in a digital age. As always, the work is partially based on fact; the Marcel Network was a real group of people who saved 527 children from Nazi death camps. Donoghue’s crafted combination of historical context and current social issues make her book compelling and important, as well as delivering a well-paced and intelligent read. Akin is all about connections, and at the root of the book, we can identify an exploration of the essential ties that bind humans into the phenomenon known as family.
There are times when the aspects of Michael’s life which Noah finds astonishing – such as Snapchat (“Was that slang for gossip?”) – are bordering on the predictable, but then we remember that an 80-year-old academic may well not be familiar with social media. Similarly, Michael is often shocked by Noah’s irreverence. The pace is gentle, yet the vividly drawn characters of Michael and Noah bring the book to life. For fans of the bleak intensity of Room, this may feel like a bit of light-hearted escapism, but scratch the surface and you will quickly discover it is just as keenly observed as its predecessor.
The writing is OK, the characters a little empty (you could never weep for either of them, which is odd, especially considering how much loss little Michael has experienced) and there’s no magic feeling of being swept up in a journey with real people in a real place. Instead, despite the strong opening, you are simply left wandering the streets of Nice feeling bored, frustrated and disenfranchised, not unlike Michael himself, the boy who could have made this book great.
Donoghue is a lover of facts and objects, and it’s pleasant to spend time in her company. There is a plethora of interesting detail – about chemistry, history, photography and a great deal else – running throughout the book. Unfortunately, the subplot about Noah’s family history never quite bites, and despite its elegant treatment of theme the story struggles to get into gear. There’s no doubt that Akin is a nice book. But nice is just a place in France.
Professor Noal Selvaggio is about to embark on a trip to Nice to uncover his mother's wartime secrets, when he receives a call from social services, asking him to look after his great-nephew, Micheal. In a mesmerising read, we follow this rather odd couple on a journey to solve a mystery. Poignant and hopeful, the bestselling novelist of Room has delivered another exquisite portrayal of an adult and child making their way in the world.
Emma Donoghue is a first-rate historical novelist, but she’s still best known for Room, her harrowing, heart-in-mouth, modern-day tale of an imprisoned mother and son. Family ties are her subject here too, but the bond is a more unusual one... There’s some weighty stuff nimbly woven into this highly enjoyable novel — the Holocaust; the blighting effects of poverty; American police corruption. Yet it’s consistently sprightly. The bickering and bantering of the sparring duo keeps things skipping along and Donoghue’s fondness for her odd couple radiates winningly off the page.
Through the mysteries of Michael and Noah’s respective upbringings (Noah wrestles with the possibility that his mother might have collaborated with the Nazis, while discovering that Victor and Amber’s plight might be more complex than expected), Donoghue delivers a profound reflection on family secrets and the way they shape our current identities. Her profoundly human portrayal of Michael elicits a crucial form of empathy for the lives disrupted by the opioid crisis and raises questions on its impact on generations to come. All this makes Akin an important, touching novel that stays with you long after you’re done reading it.