Exploring the ties that bind

07 January 2020 - 10:56 By Margaret von Klemperer
'Akin' by Emma Donoghue.
'Akin' by Emma Donoghue.
Image: Supplied

Published in the Witness (23/12/2019)

Emma Donoghue’s bestselling Room was a novel filled with almost unbearable tension, but here, in Akin, the pace is slower and the aim is much more nuanced.

Noah, a childless and widowed academic approaching his 80th birthday, is suddenly contacted by social services in New York, where he lives, to be told he is the only family member for his 11-year-old great nephew. Unless he takes him in, on at least a temporary basis, the child will have to be put into care.

Michael’s father has been found dead from an overdose, his mother is in jail for possession of drugs, and the grandmother who was caring for him has died. Noah is about to head off to Nice, the town where he was born, for a nostalgic holiday. Not something he envisaged sharing with the damaged, recalcitrant Michael, who he has never met.

Noah’s trip is partly nostalgic and partly an exploration of the past. As a child during World War 2, he was evacuated from Nice to join his father in New York while his mother stayed behind in France to look after her father, a celebrated photographer. She eventually joined the family in America but never spoke about her wartime experiences, and all Noah has is a pile of amateurish and oddly composed photographs.

Noah is struggling to piece her story together: was she a Nazi collaborator; did she have an illegitimate child; was she just the kind mother he remembers, or a heroine of the Resistance?

Meanwhile Michael, unhappy and difficult, is also searching for something stable he can hang on to, but can’t see it in his great uncle. Beyond a shared genetic inheritance, they seem to have nothing in common and have embarked on what is beginning to look like the holiday from hell.

Donoghue skilfully, if sometimes a little slowly, weaves a gentle story. There will be no great denouement, though some secrets are unravelled for both Noah and Michael. Those expecting the tension of Room may be somewhat disappointed, but this is a tender and perceptive tale, and while both central characters have their flaws and some of what they discover, or think they do, may have been worked out by the reader in advance, you find yourself rooting for both Noah and Michael.