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Akin

by Emma Donoghue

Noah Selvaggio, the protagonist of Emma Donoghue’s new novel, doesn’t like change. His Upper West Side apartment is a shrine to the past; he can’t even bring himself to throw out his dead dog’s old bed and chew toys. His days are marked by routines stiffened through decades of work and marriage, routines that have remained unchanged by the fact that he’s now a retired widower.

Donoghue’s story begins with Noah grudgingly planning a trip to his hometown of Nice, a place he hasn’t visited for seven and a half decades, and he’s struggling with the disruption that international travel will bring to his tidy life. He’s only going because his sister has left him a bequest earmarked for fun and adventure. Then, in a Dickensian twist, he gets a call from a social worker about Michael, his estranged nephew’s 11-year-old son. Aside from Noah, all of Michael’s family members are dead, incarcerated, unreachable, or otherwise unable to care for him. Would Noah, the social worker asks, consider taking Michael in until something else can be figured out?

Noah reluctantly agrees and makes arrangements for his great-nephew to accompany him to France. Neither Michael nor his new guardian is enthusiastic. Noah is not a fan of children and resents having his vacation hijacked by a foul-mouthed tween. Michael, who grew up in a household marked by financial struggles, is resentful that a member of his father’s firmly upper-middle-class family has suddenly appeared after a lifetime of ignoring him.

In Nice, Noah is confronted with family matters in both his past and his present: not only does he have to figure out how to build a relationship with Michael, circumstances also lead him to question his mother’s activities during the Second World War. Was she really as uninvolved in the conflict as she’d always claimed? Or did she have a dark past she’d kept hidden from her children? As Noah begins to unravel his mother’s secrets, he also works through his preconceptions about Michael. Was Noah’s nephew really the good-for-nothing he’d made him out to be? Was the Selvaggios’ attitude toward Michael’s family deserved, or was it the product of unexamined elitism? Whose mistakes is Michael paying for?

As its title suggests, Akin is a book about kinship. The question of what makes a family is a basic one, but no less engaging for that. Donoghue’s writing is as lush as it is clear-eyed; her characters and settings emerge in richly detailed prose, but there’s never a word out of place. Noah, a curmudgeonly almost-octogenarian who is not quite as progressive as he imagines, will ring true to anyone familiar with his type.

Michael occasionally teeters on the edge of post–Generation Z stereotype – his speech is a touch too littered with buzzwords, his life goal of being a video-game streamer a bit too on the nose – but he’s believable all the same. In the hands of a lesser writer, their strained relationship might induce eye rolls, but Donoghue is adroit enough to avoid any common pitfalls. Noah’s and Michael’s emotional arcs never feel manipulative or contrived but always well earned. Their dialogue (mildly cringe-worthy slang aside) is consistently well crafted, smart, and funny.

Five years ago, yet another novel centred in part on the Second World War might have seemed clichéd – hadn’t the Nazis been done to death already? – but in 2019 it’s dishearteningly relevant. Akin raises questions that are just as much in need of answers today as they were 75 years ago: as the story unfolds, Donoghue deftly explores the moral and ethical obligations of resistance, the dangers of passivity, and whether survival is ever a reason or excuse for collaboration. With some clever allusions to contemporary political issues, Noah’s family history becomes a lesson in history repeating itself. Yet somehow Akin manages never to feel preachy or allegorical; it relates past to present without making readers feel they’re being condescended to.

Unlike some of Donoghue’s other works, Akin’s pleasures are quieter and more reserved. While it might not have the high-stakes drama of The Wonder or the thriller-like quality of Room, Akin is a satisfying book nonetheless. The pacing is tight enough that the story never drags, but narrative tidiness never comes at the expense of vibrancy or detail. The descriptions of carnival-season Nice alone are worth the price of admission, and Noah and Michael’s intergenerational relationship has a depth and sweetness to it that feels rare in contemporary fiction. Donoghue’s ability to spin a story is masterful, and Akin is engaging and very readable.