Also by this author: Room
on September 10, 2019
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Emma Donoghue is an auto-buy author for me. I fell in love with the way she crafts her stories when I read her best-known novel, Room, and have immensely enjoyed every book of hers I’ve read since. It was therefore a given that I would request a review copy of Akin, her latest novel. I was a little nervous since I always hype her books up in my head and then worry they won’t live up to my expectations, but my worries were alleviated as soon as I read the first page and was immediately drawn into the life of the quirky protagonist, Noah Selvaggio.
Noah is a seventy-nine year old retired professor who is about to embark on a trip to the South of France, where he was born. It’s a trip he has been meaning to take for years, but now that he’s a widower and nearing 80, he knows his time is running out. While getting his affairs in order for the trip, he is contacted unexpectedly by a representative from Child Services, informing him that his 11 year old great nephew is in danger of being separated from his family if he doesn’t have a relative that he can move in with immediately. Michael’s mother is in prison, his father is deceased, and no other relatives are able or willing to take him at this time. Noah has never had any contact with Michael – they are strangers to each other – but after much consideration, he agrees to take him in on a temporary basis. When he finally meets Michael, he is immediately faced with a mouthy pre-teen who curses like a sailor and who does everything he can to be as uncooperative as possible. Noah is resigned to the situation though and so this unlikely duo sets off for Nice, France together.
Much of Akin explores the evolving relationship between Noah and Michael, and I just loved every minute of this. Donoghue has the entire story unfold from Noah’s perspective so we’re in his head as he, who never had children of his own, tries to navigate the minefield of parenthood while dealing with a child who is clearly lashing out because he is in a situation that isn’t of his own making. Noah is practically walking a tightrope trying to gently parent the child, but without overstepping his boundaries, and it’s very challenging every step of the way. I really loved watching this pair get to know each other, and I thought Donoghue did a brilliant job of authentically depicting the relationship, with all of its inevitable ups and downs. They have their fair share of tender moments and frustrating moments, but there are also plenty of laugh out loud moments along the way.
While that relationship is the driving force behind the novel, Donoghue adds a fabulous subplot that I thought just really took the book to another level. While Noah is preparing for his trip to France, he comes across a packet of old photos in some of his mother’s belongings. They’re unusual photos that don’t make sense to Noah, but he can see they were taken in France during the 1940’s, so he decides to bring them along to see if the opportunity to learn more about them presents itself. Noah doesn’t know where to even begin, but his technologically savvy great nephew comes in very handy and helps him identify a hotel in one of the photos. The hotel, as it turns out, was a headquarters of sorts for the Nazis during WWII. It was where they brought Jews and other prisoners before shipping them off to Drancy and then to Auschwitz. I’m a huge fan of historical fiction, especially WWII fiction, so this angle of the story just sucked me right in, especially as it became clear that Noah’s mother had played an active role in the war. What wasn’t so clear, however, was what side she was on, Resistance or Nazi collaborator. Noah becomes obsessed with trying to figure out what his mother’s role was because he’s starting to feel as if he never really knew his mother at all. Michael is equally curious since this woman would have been his great grandmother, and so the two of them work as a team to learn the truth.
Emma Donoghue’s Akin is just such a wonderful read on so many levels. The mystery regarding Noah’s mother is riveting, but it’s that relationship between Noah and Michael that gives this story such heart. As its title suggests, Akin is ultimately a beautiful story about what it means to be family. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys stories that focus on family, to fans of both contemporary and historical fiction, and of course to Emma Donoghue fans, who are sure to love this gem. I think it’s my favorite Donoghue book yet!
A retired New York professor’s life is thrown into chaos when he takes a young great-nephew to the French Riviera, in hopes of uncovering his own mother’s wartime secrets in the next masterpiece from New York Times bestselling author Emma Donoghue.
Noah Selvaggio is a retired chemistry professor and widower living on the Upper West Side, but born in the South of France. He is days away from his first visit back to Nice since he was a child, bringing with him a handful of puzzling photos he’s discovered from his mother’s wartime years. But he receives a call from social services: Noah is the closest available relative of an eleven-year-old great-nephew he’s never met, who urgently needs someone to look after him. Out of a feeling of obligation, Noah agrees to take Michael along on his trip.
Much has changed in this famously charming seaside mecca, still haunted by memories of the Nazi occupation. The unlikely duo, suffering from jet lag and culture shock, bicker about everything from steak frites to screen time. But Noah gradually comes to appreciate the boy’s truculent wit, and Michael’s ease with tech and sharp eye help Noah unearth troubling details about their family’s past. Both come to grasp the risks people in all eras have run for their loved ones, and find they are more akin than they knew.
Written with all the tenderness and psychological intensity that made Room an international bestseller, Akin is a funny, heart-wrenching tale of an old man and a boy, born two generations apart, who unpick their painful story and start to write a new one together.