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Emma Donoghue has explored many themes and genres --- historical fiction, mystery, even children’s books --- over her extensive writing career. Her new novel, AKIN, is perhaps most similar to her huge bestseller ROOM, but here she turns that situation on its head. The earlier book focused on the incredibly close relationship between a mother and son, the latter of whom had never seen the outside world and consequently was innocent of its horrors (even though he himself, unwittingly, was living inside one of them). AKIN is also about a relationship between an adult and a child, but whereas in ROOM the pair had spent literally every moment together for the child’s entire life, here the duo is thrown together abruptly, and far from by choice.

Seventy-nine-year-old Noah Selvaggio is a reluctantly retired chemistry professor and an even more reluctant widower. He’s still grieving the loss of his wife, also a scientist, and more recently mourning the death of his younger sister, Fernande. But Fernande has left him a bit of money in her will, stipulating that he needs to use it for something fun. So Noah has decided to take a trip to Nice, France, where he was born but to which he has not returned since his mother sent him to join his father in the United States when he was a young boy.

"Donoghue...illustrates how Noah himself benefits, even so late in life, from learning from this boy about things he never had imagined."

Noah is in the midst of packing his bags when he gets a phone call. Fernande’s 11-year-old grandson, Michael --- whose father, Victor, died of a drug overdose --- is now without a local guardian after the death of his maternal grandmother. Michael’s mother is in prison, perhaps for selling the same drugs that killed Victor, and to the best of the social worker’s knowledge, Noah is Michael’s only other local relative. Almost before Noah realizes it, he finds himself as Michael’s temporary guardian and --- when the social worker expedites Michael’s passport application --- with a new traveling companion for his trip to Nice.

Noah doesn’t quite know what to do with Michael, who is foul-mouthed, snarky and obsessed with his phone. But as the two of them travel through Nice, they begin to find some shaky common ground, particularly in a shared interest in photography (Noah’s grandfather was a photographer of some renown) and, gradually, in an investigation into a nebulous period from Noah’s family history. How did his mother spend the two years in Nice between when she sent Noah to America and when she joined the rest of the family there?

Some writers might have focused solely on how Noah’s wisdom and experience help soften this street-tough kid and help him learn to love again. Certainly there are elements of that here, but Donoghue also illustrates how Noah himself benefits, even so late in life, from learning from this boy about things he never had imagined. Michael’s story throws into question everything he thought he knew about his sister’s relationship with her son. He also opens Noah’s eyes to a world of violence, insecurity and injustice. When Michael spots a bunch of balloons tied to a railing in Noah’s Upper West Side neighborhood, he's surprised to find out it’s for a birthday party; he had assumed, much to Noah’s surprise, that it was a memorial to someone who had been killed there.

At the beginning of the novel, Noah is adrift, still struggling to define himself apart from his professional credentials and his marriage to a far more successful scientist. As his relationship with Michael grows, he may have discovered his purpose after all.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 13, 2019

by Emma Donoghue

  • Publication Date: July 7, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316491969
  • ISBN-13: 9780316491969