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Posted on 6 Feb 2020 in Fiction |

EMMA DONOGHUE Akin. Reviewed by Justine Ettler

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The bestselling author of Room returns with a novel about a reluctant guardianship.

With an impressive string of awards and shortlistings behind her, including the Ferro-Grumley Award for Lesbian Fiction for her historical novel Slammerkin (2000), Emma Donoghue is most widely known for her bestseller Room. Like Room, a novel about a five-year-old named Jack who is being held captive with his mother in a small room by her abuser, Akin is also a story about a child in a vulnerable situation, in this case an 11-year-old boy and his 79-going-on-80-year-old great-uncle, who are thrown together by misfortune. Unlike Room, which was conceived after hearing about five-year-old Felix in the Fritzl case, Akin is a work of fiction, although the novel does touch on real historical events that similarly involve the abuse of children.

Retired New York chemistry professor Noah Selvaggio, a widower planning to visit his birth city of Nice to celebrate his 80th birthday, reluctantly allows himself to be ambushed into becoming the temporary guardian of his 11-year-old great-nephew, Michael. Michael’s father, Noah’s nephew Victor, was a drug addict whose overdose broke the heart of his mother, Noah’s sister Fernande. (Fernande died herself not long afterwards.) With Victor’s widow Amber in jail, Noah perhaps not unreasonably fears that Michael may be more of the same —that is, trouble, with a capital T.

But feeling sorry for Rosa, the exhausted social worker who is struggling with 24 cases just like Michael’s, and resigned to the fact that he is Michael’s last chance to keep out of the underfunded, nightmarish American care system, Noah reluctantly offers to give guardianship a go. Hoping Rosa will think it’s a bad idea, he offers to take Michael with him to Nice, but when the social worker agrees, Noah becomes trapped.

A cross-generational Odd Couple, the two bicker constantly, occasionally lapsing into teasing banter, only to return to bickering again. Michael, growing up on Brooklyn’s struggle streets, is obsessed with toilet humour, will eat nothing but the worst possible forms of junk food, is ignorant of anything that’s not on YouTube, Google or Instagram, and embraces the selfie as if it’s the ultimate art form. His vocabulary would put your average truck driver to shame.

Noah doesn’t swear, expects to be treated with dignity and respect, is used to speaking in sentences and participating in conversations, and has spent most of his quiet life acquiring and passing on knowledge. In short: there’s not a lot of common ground. Breaking through the discord is Noah’s late wife, Joan. Noah has internalised their 40 years of marriage into a helpful stream of what he describes as thought algorithms, which offer him guidance and support.

The generational divide between knowledge and information is one of Akin’s central themes. Noah represents an older generation who passionately believe that what used to be taught at schools and universities constitutes knowledge, while Michael represents a younger generation who only respects information if it is gleaned from social media, can be watched on YouTube or features in digital games. The author may even be attempting to forge something of a rapprochement across this generational divide by reassuring older generations that all may not be lost in the current phase of knowledge’s speedy delegitimation. Time and again Michael, who emerges as something of a rough diamond, saves the day with his street smarts and problem-solving skills. For example, he partially solves the riddle of Noah’s past through quick thinking and his mastery of Google. Donoghue’s preoccupation with this theme cuts both ways, allowing her to stealthily complain about the dumbing down of language and the disappearance of many forms of knowledge from today’s institutions.

The following is a typical exchange:

‘Entrée interdite, entry is forbidden.’

‘You’re like a human Google Translate,’ Michael muttered.

‘Oh so you’d rather guess all the words on your own?’

The novel is dotted with fascinating details about Nice, its history and countless references to French culture, and this factual material is mostly well worked into the narrative. And yet, while the novel represents a return to Donoghue’s enormously successful earlier concerns, Akin fails to deliver in terms of psychological tension. The story’s most compelling elements remain buried deep in the subplot, and the present where the plot is set has too little in the way of dramatic stakes to compensate and keep the reader turning the pages. One can’t help feeling that the story of Noah’s mother, Margot, the famous photographer’s daughter who helped secrete Jewish children in Nice during World War II by placing them in foster families and thus preventing their deportation to Auschwitz, might have worked better as the foregrounded plot with the present-day Noah/Michael story as a frame.

The novel has its heart in the right place, the plight of children growing up in poverty is an indisputably worthy subject for a contemporary novel, especially as more and more of the West swings towards the anti-welfare far right (though symbolically comparing the current US care system to a concentration camp may be stretching things, as much as many readers will appreciate the necessity of making this point and making it hard). Donoghue’s fine ear for dialogue makes for entertaining reading, and despite lacking a little tension along the way, Akin delivers a heart-warming, satisfying ending.

Emma Donoghue Akin Picador 2019 PB 352pp $29.99

Justine Ettler has a PhD in American fiction and is the author of three novels, including the controversial bestseller The River Ophelia (a new edition was released in 2017) and Bohemia Beach (published by Transit Lounge in 2018). She has worked as an academic and a freelance journalist, and her work is available at bookshops, online and from her website.

You can buy Akin from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.