Review: The vicarious pleasure of Emma Donoghue’s Akin

In the seventh chapter of her latest novel, Akin, celebrated author Emma Donoghue inserts a short scene in which 79-year-old Noah and his 11-year-old great-nephew, Michael, stroll through a flea market in Nice, France. On the shelf of one of the small shops, Noah shows Michael a mug embossed with an image of Hergé’s famous character, Tintin, and his terrier Milou (Snowy, in the English translations).

It is a momentary diversion; Noah and Michael quickly pass the mug and move on to some vintage technologies, such as an old rotary phone and earpiece, a bellows camera and a collection of knives. (The camera is the important item. Cameras, the images they produce and the power of those images to reveal, obscure and connect are central motifs in the book.) There are no additional references to Tintin.

Remarkable to me, however, was the fact that the passing mention arrived on the novel’s pages shortly after I had begun to marvel at how much Donoghue’s story reminded me of Hergé’s graphic novels. I was about 11 years old, I realized — the same age as Michael — when bedtime reading often included one of Tintin’s adventures, borrowed from the Leamington (Ont.) Public Library. The story structure of those books was familiar: some odd event or circumstance would proper Tintin, a cub reporter at a newspaper, along with his dog, Snowy, toward some exotic adventure in a foreign land meticulously rendered by Hergé’s hand. As a pre-teen, I revelled in the author’s lush illustrations and visited, vicariously, the locations to which Tintin’s unsolved mysteries drew him: European kingdoms and principalities, the high seas, Mayan civilizations, the Himalayas, rugged islands off Scotland — even the moon.

Akin propels the reader along a plotline in an exotic locale in similar fashion. A retired New York professor’s pre-planned vacation is upended when he reluctantly agrees to take his great-nephew to Nice, on the French Riviera. Noah, the professor, had hoped the trip might help him solve a series of riddles posed by a small collection of Second World War-era photographs that hint at some connection between Noah’s mother, Margot, and the Nazi occupation of France. The great-nephew, Michael, is thrust into Noah’s custody because Michael’s mother, Amber, is in prison and Noah is the only living relative to which Children’s Services can turn for help.

So the stage is set: This odd couple — a creaky professor emeritus from a New York university and his recalcitrant and ill-mannered but tech-savvy relative — head to the French Riviera to solve personal mysteries. All the while, Noah engages in a kind of internal dialogue with his deceased wife, Joan, as he attempts to rein in Michael’s rambunctious spirit. The story reaches a satisfying conclusion, revealing two types of heroism and the sinewy fibres that invisibly bind family members across generations, making their members akin to one another in more ways than they realize.

Just as pleasing as the story, however, is Donoghue’s descriptions of the locale. In a personal note about the book, the author writes, “Akin is my only book to grow out of a particular place: it’s inspired by the two years (2011-12 and 2015-16) I spent with my French partner and our children in Nice. Despite having a degree in French and English, over the decades I’ve consistently failed to become fluent in French, so this novel is a sort of apologetic love-letter to the country that intrigues me so deeply, where I will always be a stranger.” Donoghue’s immersion in the city’s past and present over those two years is immensely important to the book. The reader luxuriates in her descriptions of the geography, customs, celebrations, cuisine and attitudes of Nice, which are wonderfully intertwined with the quest for answers to the riddles that haunt Noah. Nice, and the French Riviera, become important characters in the story.

Emma Donoghue

Best known for her 2010 bestseller Room (her adapted screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe (Drama Screenplay) and a BAFTA film award), Donoghue lives in London, Ont., with her partner Chris Roulston, their son Finn (15) and daughter Una (11).

A conversation between Donoghue and CBC Radio host Tom Power was broadcast shortly before Akin was published on Sept. 3. That interview, from the program q, is available here. The New York Times review of Akin can be found here.

Author: Cornies

I'm a columnist and writer with continuing interests in arts journalism, Canadian politics and culture, and journalism ethics. I teach occasionally at Western University in London, Ontario. Past lives include coordinating the journalism program at Conestoga College, teaching at Ryerson University's School of Journalism, editing A-section news pages at The Globe and Mail, and various roles at The London Free Press, including arts and entertainment editor and editorial page editor.

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