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Book Review: Akin, by Emma Donoghue

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Akin By Nicola Bentley

Emma Donoghue’s newest novel, Akin, transports the reader from the streets of New York, where the drug trade’s worst outcome is death, to the Promenade in Nice, France, where the city is about to celebrate its annual Carnival.

Retired professor Noah Selvaggio is preparing to travel to Nice, a place he has not visited since he was four years old. His intent is to celebrate his 80th birthday while he reconnects with his family’s roots. Noah also hopes to answer several persistent questions. What was life really like for Noah’s mother in occupied France during World War II after he was sent to safety in America and she stayed on to care for her elderly father. Why did she keep a series of mysterious black and white photographs? What was their significance and more importantly what relevance do the images have for Noah and his understanding about his family?

An unexpected call from the Administration for Children’s Services abruptly changes Noah’s travel plans. His great-nephew Michael, the eleven-year old son of his wayward and now deceased nephew, Victor, is suddenly in need of a home. Michael’s maternal grandmother, his guardian, has just died and his mother is incarcerated, possibly as a result of Victor’s criminal activities. “I’m exploring Michael’s kinship resources,” Rosa Figueroa, the placement officer tells Noah. “There’s nobody at all to look after him.” With little choice but to offer his guest room to the boy, the widower reluctantly agrees to a temporary care arrangement.

Emma Donoghue skillfully layers character development and visually rich descriptions of Nice with detailed historical references to life during the Nazi occupation of France. Noah approaches the visit to Nice with the focus one would expect of a retired, well-to-do university professor whose preferences include museums and galleries followed by enjoying French cuisine. In contrast Michael is a stereotypical, inner-city tween who hasn’t travelled beyond New York and whose only aspiration, to become a professional gamer, consumes every waking hour. When he’s not being disrespectful to Noah, Michael is glued to his cracked phone. But, the boy’s curious mind and affinity for technology pay off as the pair explore Nice and uncover startling information about anti-Semitism and life during the French Resistance. With Michael’s help Noah starts to piece together the truth about why his mother stayed behind in France during the war.

Emma Donoghue’s newest work showcases her skillfulness and creativity as a master storyteller. Akin is a richly complex, sometimes dark, but rewarding read that explores what it truly means to be family.

Emma Donoghue is appearing at the Sunday Brunch, Oct. 20, 11am at this year’s Whistler Writer’s Festival, which runs from October 17 – 20, 2019.

Nicola Bentley lives in Whistler where she reads, hikes and writes.