Book review: Akin, by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue is full of surprises. From the Crucible-esque 19th century darkness of the small Irish town in The Wonder, to the seediness of post-Gold Rush San Francisco in Frog Music, to the bleak, claustrophobic horror of Room, her settings – and styles – are hugely diverse.

Akin by Emma Donoghue

Her latest novel, Akin, is her first work of contemporary fiction for adults since her runaway success, Room – yet it is a very different animal.
It is the story of Noah, a retired, widowed academic living a quiet life in an elegant flat in Manhattan. The elderly man is contacted out of the blue by a social worker, telling him that he is the only available next of kin to be a temporary carer for 11-year-old Michael – the offspring of his sister’s son.

Michael’s father is dead – his veins “full of heroin and fentanyl” – while his mother is in prison. His grandmother, who has been looking after him most recently, has also died. Noah, who is days away from a once-in-a-lifetime return to Nice, where he was brought up until the age of four, is reluctant, but feels an obligation.

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He agrees to take Michael, who has never been outside the US, growing up in “one of the last pockets of Brooklyn resistant to gentrification”, with him to the French city, where he hopes to solve the mystery of a set of old photos taken by his mother that he has found in his late sister’s belongings.

What follows is a Before Sunrise of the literary world, with the same unfolding of family secrets and a blossoming friendship as in Richard Linklater’s film – but with an odd couple of a young boy and his great uncle in the starring roles, rather than a romantic pair.
As Michael and Noah wander around Nice, they discover not only the city, but each other. Michael’s constant wily tricks to ensure he gets his daily hit of

Coca-Cola will be familiar to any parent, while Noah’s eyes are opened to a modern world he has previously ignored.

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.  

Akin, by Emma Donoghue, Picador, £16.99