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Akin: Sparkles with Emma Donoghue’s clear, often witty style

Emma Donoghue’s 10th novel vibrates with historical context and current social issues

Author: Emma Donoghue
ISBN-13: 978-1529019964
Publisher: Picador
Guideline Price: £16.99

It’s not surprising that a new Emma Donoghue title generates a particularly sonorous buzz. She’s a writer who has not only built up a long and steady body of readers as a result of her impressive canon of fiction (nine novels, five short story collections, two children’s books), but she’s achieved that wildly coveted, elusive goal – the “international best seller” and the movie. Every review of her titles published since refers to Room. Constantly.

Yet her readers don’t tend to do this, partly because they’ve already been enjoying her work for 25 years, but mostly because since her well-deserved success, she has resisted the temptation of turning formulaic and instead produced several completely different books, taking us from the music halls of the wild west in the extraordinary Frog Music, to a chilly rural Ireland in The Wonder and the realms of a politically correct family commune in The Lotterys books. For her next literary trick, she does not disappoint.

Noah Selvaggio is a retired chemistry professor living alone since his wife’s death in an elegant apartment in New York on the upper west side. After his sister dies leaving him a lump sum to “do SOMETHING FUN!!!” he decides to celebrate his 80th birthday in the south of France where he was born. So begins Donoghue’s 10th novel.

Just days before his departure, Noah receives a panicked call from a social worker requesting him to act as temporary guardian for Michael, an 11-year-old great-nephew he has never met. Noah doesn’t relish the thought of being “shackled to some random boy” for his holiday. But following the death of Michael’s grandmother, if Noah reneges, the child will get sucked into the state system and placed in a group home; one not likely to involve a “small, homey residence with qualified foster parents”.


Thus the author, within a perfect road trip framework, brings together two family members who are generations apart, and sends them way outside their comfort zones. As the rather well-weaved plot gathers momentum, it juxtaposes two family mysteries: what happened to Noah’s mother in the last weeks before the liberation of France in 1944, and the fate of his nephew, Victor, who died in a Brooklyn drug war.


Both main characters are refugees: Noah originally from wartime Nice, and Michael from one of the “last Brooklyn outposts to resist gentrification”. When he arrives into Noah’s apartment, his entire worldly possessions fit into his backpack.

Noah is stoic, having spent most of his life developing synthetic polymers, not family relationships. Michael is too wounded and guarded to expose himself; “I’m only your problem for a couple of weeks,” he snaps. Noah is too old to imagine that the relationship will survive the challenges of the journey undertaken.

Initially the brittle bridge that forms between them is not built on affection, but channelled through humour and repartee. Michael, stuck in his phone and almost monosyllabic, educates Noah in street slang and gaming. Noah in turn realises how utterly disconnected he is from Michael’s actuality. He tries to protect the boy from the horrors of Nazi wartime activities in Nice, but Michael assures him that he’s already “like, seen beheadings” posted on YouTube by Islamic State and Boko Haram.

For Noah, the famous Promenade des Anglais is a classic symbol of European leisure. Michael only sees it as the famous “Street of Death” where a “Jihadi psycho killer” mowed down a crowd in 2016. He is shocked at the child’s lack of optimism for the future. When Noah is mystified at Michael’s reference to “the crash”, the frustrated child explains with impatience, “When the sea rises and the Internet is down . . .”

Sensibly on the part of the author, there is no soppy exposition of love between the old man and the boy at the end of the book, and the relationship’s development is subtle enough for us to accept that a partnership of sorts has formed. The extended generational plots that develop through the novel are complex and deeply moving, exploring how our family histories often affect the fates of unfolding generations.

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.