Early on in Akin, Emma Donoghue’s 12th novel, we are told that her 79-year-old protagonist Noah took up smoking after the death of his wife because “he’d just needed something else to do with his hands when they reached for her and closed on nothing”.
This is typical of Akin: the words roll off the page, the image is tender and sad, conjuring not only the awfulness of that grasp on emptiness, but its repetition too. But then I started to overthink it. What exactly did Noah do to his wife when reaching for her? Was it tied up in coffee drinking, like his smoking habit? Did he reach for her seven or eight times a day? My questions became absurd, but this all points to a broader problem: like a previously non-smoking scientist suddenly reaching for a fag packet, something about Donoghue’s story doesn’t feel quite real.
The main narrative gets off to a shaky start when Noah is contacted by Rosa Figueroa, a social worker exploring the “kinship resources” for Noah’s 11-year-old great-nephew, Michael. Michael’s father died a few years earlier of an overdose, and his mother is in prison for possession, making Noah the last relative available to look after him. Donaghue carefully walks the tightrope between comedy and tragedy, making Rosa a convincing blend of compassion and fatigue, honest humanity and bureaucratic double-speak. It feels almost reasonable that she should be able to persuade Noah to look after the boy: “She wasn’t naive enough to assume that Noah would do a great job of this. She was trying to keep one kid from being sucked into the pipeline. Because of the holy word kinship, her harried superiors, glancing at the paperwork, weren’t likely to object.”
If you read the novel with similar inattention, you also easily accept that Noah would take Michael in right away, even though he’s less than 48 hours away from a trip to Nice to celebrate his 80th birthday, a chance to revisit a city he hasn’t seen since the second world war. Luckily, there’s enough good writing to distract from the daft premise. Michael, who has never left his deprived area of Brooklyn, is spooked by Noah’s Manhattan apartment, which is so quiet “like everyone’s dead”. Next line: “Noah assured him they weren’t. Just middle class, he thought.”
Once they’ve safely flown across the Atlantic, there’s plenty more enjoyable back and forth between this odd couple, often centring on food. Michael is alarmed to see basil on his pizza, and won’t eat his steak haché because it’s “all raggedy and bleeding”. But he manages to trick Noah into buying him sugary sodas to complement this determinedly unhealthy grub, which he eats with more gusto than Noah ever manages for all the oysters and seafood platters he reluctantly orders in the name of sampling local flavours.
Michael brings a similar relish to the journal entries his school has asked him to write about his trip as a salve for having taken off during termtime. After Donoghue has expended thousands of words in careful description of the days the old man and his young companion spend together, it’s fun to see them filtered down to such essentials as: “Today with my Super Great Uncle I did some real educashional stuff like seen a beach with no sand and giant dog turds and walked about a million miles.”
There are also moments of real poignancy. Donoghue takes care to show how vulnerable Michael is: “So many ways Noah couldn’t protect this boy, it was like travelling with a bag of bananas he had little chance of delivering unbruised.” It is easy to forget how young he is; even Noah has to remember “he was really just a little boy … 11 years old, cotton candy on his chin”. And it jolts. For most of the book, Michael speaks like someone far older, even allowing for his hard upbringing. His references are generally highly sexualised and wide-ranging. “I thought you were dying on the toilet like fucking Elvis,” he tells Noah at one point, which feels like an especially impressive remark for someone who has never seen basil before.
As the book goes on, it focuses ever more on Noah’s mother, based around a few photos he has found of her time in Nice. There are moments of real horror and pathos in the descriptions of the Nazi occupation, but it’s a plot strand that again relies heavily on coincidence, scant documentation and the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief.
All of this would be more forgivable from a lesser writer – but not from someone with Donoghue’s talent and track record. It just feels too silly to be credible. She has been reaching for a good story, but ultimately closed on nothing.
Next time: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
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