Akin, by Emma Donoghue, Picador, 352 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1529019971
Akin is Emma Donoghue’s tenth novel, and her third since the breakout success of Room in 2010. Room’s strength was the finely realised voice of its narrator: a five-year-old with no experience of the world beyond his one-room home. Akin is also concerned with the troubled life of a child but here Donoghue settles on a less unusual viewpoint and a wider lens.
The novel is told from the perspective of Noah Selvaggio, a retired chemistry professor in his late seventies who lives alone in New York’s Upper West Side following the death of his wife. Born “Noé” in Nice on the brink of the Second World War, Noah is the grandson of a famed photographer, whose subjects included Josephine Baker and Man Ray. On the eve of a visit to the city of his birth, he is unexpectedly obliged to take his grandnephew, an eleven-year-old named Michael whom he has never met, along on the trip. Michael has run out of other options. Both his parents are victims of the opioid crisis: his mother is serving a five-year sentence for drug possession; his father, Noah’s nephew, is dead. Neither Michael nor Noah feels at ease with the latter’s temporary guardianship role. The novel unpicks the contradictions of the connection between them: two strangers knotted together first by blood and then by circumstance. Questions of family bonds and family betrayals recur. The novel opens with Noah examining photographs – inexpert images of tree roots, buildings, the backs of strangers’ heads – taken during the Second World War by his mother, the daughter and assistant of the master photographer. With these objects as his guide, and Michael as his reluctant companion, Noah attempts to piece together a narrative about an opaque period of his mother’s life: the années noires of occupied France.
The novel drifts between the present day reality of Michael’s childhood and the long past years of Noah’s early life, now a hazy mix of memory and hearsay. Donoghue tangles the two eras to draw out multiple kinds of violence: the world historical extremes of Nazi genocide and the everyday destruction of addiction, incarceration and poverty. On these themes, Donoghue opts for a little more hand-holding than is strictly necessary, as when Noah considers that “kids bereft of parents and homes could be said to be living through one long wartime.” Noah has many such realisations throughout the book, as the facts of his nephew’s life test his ignorance about the reality of poverty and the inhumanities of the law. The eleven-year-old Michael has more of the cynic’s edge; he’s well-versed in the vocabulary of the prison system. What Noah grasps through research and historical analogy, Michael absorbs from experience and intuition. Michael does not need to consider the figure of the Nazi collaborator or read a report on the New York Police Department’s pervasive use of undercover informants to understand that “snitches end up in ditches”.
Michael has other forms of knowledge too that render him a surprisingly useful sidekick on Noah’s mission to understand his mother’s life. Surprising, that is, to Noah, who has not had much opportunity to witness the dizzying tech savviness of the average pre-teen. Michael’s skillset sets the novel’s central mystery in motion. Noah, on the other hand, is left to struggle with the moral ramifications of the information newly at his disposal.
The mutually educational relationship between Michael and his upper middle class academic granduncle develops along an enjoyable if rather predictable line. “I’m no Daddy Warbucks,” Noah muses defensively early on, warding off the cliché. His grandnephew is no Little Orphan Annie either, but the novel remains in many ways the story of an elderly man learning to love life again with the help of a troubled but endearing child. We can guess from the outset that this Odd Couple will slowly warm to each other and they do. It would be a very different novel that refused to fulfil this premise, and although Akin brushes against darkness, it is not a dark book. The plot’s more familiar notes do, at times, dilute its emotional heft. As the novel ends, Noah considers his parental role, as a “shield” for Michael: “And then it struck him that it was really the other way around. This boy was saving Noah.” To quote Michael: duh.
At the novel’s outset, Noah is rereading In Search of Lost Time, underlining unfamiliar French words. Many of the novel’s best moments are in watching Michael scupper the Proustian reveries that Noah has planned for his eightieth birthday. Proust’s narrator never had to pause his flights of nostalgia to argue with an eleven-year-old Minecraft enthusiast who wants churros for dinner. Michael is not wholly uninterested in history – he has a realistic, ghoulish appreciation for the details of torture and death that emerge in war narratives – but his mind is generally elsewhere. “We’ve been remembering all day,” he whines, as they stand by yet another war memorial. Michael’s limited patience for memory strikes the by now eighty-year-old widower as positively blasphemous, but he finds a similar tone in a conversation with a childhood friend, who advises him “Il vaudrait mieux passer l’éponge.” Wipe the slate clean, Noah translates for our benefit, let bygones be bygones. Taking him by surprise, Noah’s final conviction that “the future is more urgent than the past” is genuinely moving in a way that some of the more signposted emotional moments of the novel are not. You may roll your eyes at the choir-sung “children are the future” message that emerges in the book’s final pages, but you can hardly disagree.