Akin demonstrates yet again that, when it comes to fictional worlds, Emma Donoghue is at home everywhere. The novel is set in New York and Nice, France. Seventy-nine-year-old retired academic Noah—widowed, set in his ways, still living in the same apartment where he and his wife Joan (nine years dead) spent their married life and surrounded by mementos of their years together—is preparing to travel to Nice for the first time since he was a child to reconnect with the city of his birth. Then he receives a phone call. It is a social worker with an unusual request. Her hope is that Noah will assume temporary custodianship of his great-nephew, 11-year-old Michael Young—the offspring of his nephew Victor, also dead, the victim of a drug overdose—until a more permanent arrangement can be found.
The boy’s mother, Amber, is in jail. Noah’s reluctance is justified on several counts: he knows nothing about being a parent (he and Joan never had children), he’s old, he’s a couple of days away from getting on a plane to France. But when he learns of the chain of events that led to the request and the unfortunate circumstances of Michael’s young life, he feels a tug of empathy and the weight of familial duty begin to offset his misgivings. With the tortuous bureaucratic details settled, the mismatched pair—virtual strangers to one another—embark on a trip that, for both Noah and Michael, turns out to be one of discovery.Donoghue adds interest to the trip by giving Noah a deeper purpose: he is trying to solve the puzzle of his mother’s activities during WWII, his curiosity having been sparked by a parcel of photographs discovered among his late sister’s belongings—cryptic images taken by his mother that are open to interpretation and call into question her role with the French Resistance. The adventure begins in earnest once they get off the plane and hit the streets of Nice, which has changed significantly since Noah’s childhood but also remains the same in ways that come to seem even more important. Michael tags along as Noah explores, behaving much as we would expect an 11-year-old with discipline and impulse-control issues to behave. Donoghue walks a fine line with this character. Yes, Michael can be obnoxious: he makes unreasonable demands, he is rude, defiant and self-centred, he tests the limits of Noah’s patience, he has his whiny moments. But Donoghue also endows Michael with uncanny powers of observation, a kind of raw intelligence, a generous nature, and an instinct for survival.
Over the week in Nice, Noah and Michael get to know one another’s strengths and weaknesses, fears and desires. There are plenty of bumps along the way, but the emotional bond that springs up between the two develops gradually, naturally, and convincingly. Donoghue never manipulates her reader, and in Akin, as in her previous books, she expertly sidesteps any hints of sentimentality.
The story of Michael and Noah is absorbing because both characters are humanly flawed and trying to navigate a path through difficult, heart-rending situations. In the end, the strength they find within themselves has its origins in the realization that they are better together than they are on their own. Comparisons with Room, her 2010 Booker Prize-shortlisted bestseller, are inevitable, but Akin is so vastly different in every respect that such comparisons are largely pointless. Let it be said however, that it is to Emma Donoghue’s credit that she continues to extend her range and does not simply try to replicate past triumphs.
Akin by Emma Donoghue