Reviewed by Chris Loza
By Emma Donoghue
352 pages. Little, Brown and Company.
No mention of Emma Donoghue will ever be complete without talking about Room, her magnificent novel of captivity that bagged her an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay and netted Brie Larson her first Best Actress Oscar before her cosmic fame in Captain Marvel. When I finished it years ago, I could not believe how it was able to sustain my interest because almost the entire novel was set in a small room where mother and son were held captive for seven years before a daring escape towards the end. Two characters, their life in a small room, every chapter. It was a master class in writing.
Akin in some ways is a return to form of two characters but greatly expanding on the structure and setting. This time most of the story takes place in Nice, France, where a widower and childless Noah, who is celebrating his 80th birthday, is on a trip with Michael, his great-nephew, that he only met a few days before his vacation.
Michael’s mother, Amber, is in prison and all his kin are either dead like his father Victor (Noah’s nephew), unreachable, or unable to take him, which makes Noah the nearest available kin. Reluctantly, Noah takes Michael with him on his birthday trip to Nice and the awkward dance of having two strangers embark on a trip ensues. For one, there is the generational—and technological—divide between an eighty-year old and an eleven-year old. Michael who cannot live without Internet, asking immediately for the Wi-Fi password in Noah’s apartment (which Noah mistakenly heard as an inquiry about his wife, so he went on for some time about Joan, who exists mostly as a conscience in his head) and Noah who, if he can, prefers to be untethered from the Internet. Then there’s their difference in social status and background. Whereas Noah lives a comfortable, upper-middle class life, Michael lives in the rough part of New York and has known food rations most of his life. And while Michael was born in New York, Noah was an immigrant from France, set off in a boat during the end of World War II. Both know pain and loss, but decades apart.
Old photographs that Noah’s mother brought with her from Nice resurfaced and this becomes another catalyst for him to go because he suspects that these photographs are somehow linked to the Holocaust. Which side his mother was during that dark period of human history is something he needs to find out.
Nice becomes the third character in the book, inasmuch as the room was in Room. Emma Donoghue describes Nice with such life that it’s impossible not to fall in love with the place and its past. It makes you want to visit it the next time you’re in France, just to see the places that Noah and Michael went to. Here, the two characters find a delicate balance in their relationship, settling for compromises on how many Cokes Michael can have in a day to their itinerary, which becomes a mix of leisure and history—and for the readers a picturesque journey of the place.
Similar to the confidence she had shown in Room in bringing two characters to life, Akin is a masterful study in character development. Both Noah and Michael are fully realized characters with their own histories and motivations, their own understanding of the world. You might be put off by Michael’s unrefined manners, but this is a boy whose foundation is unstable, consistently shifting depending on the circumstances of whoever is his current guardian, always one home away from being put into the foster care system. By the end of the book, almost imperceptible in the way it happened, something changed between them. Their initial antagonistic attitude had settled into something rough but calmer. Their characters may not dovetail quite perfectly, but a hopeful, albeit uneasy, relationship between two people who have no one but each other is left open.
I cannot pinpoint exactly when it happened, but by the end of the novel there’s a lump in my throat for having witnessed such a striking story. Not a tearjerker in any way, but a somber meditation on life, death, and legacy. Noah’s investigation on his mother’s past life did not yield any hard facts and the circumstances surrounding Victor’s death is still speculation, but there is a kind of unsettling peace of remembering the dead and acknowledging their life. Here, Donoghue writes:
“It was always that way with the dead; they slid away before we knew enough to ask them the right questions. All we could do was remember them, as much as we could remember of them, whether it was accurate or not.”
It sums up so much of what we miss in someone when they’re gone, when the places they’ve walked on still carry echoes of their memories. We retrace them hoping to understand them in a way we never could when they were still alive.
Akin will soon be available at Fully Booked. Email us to reserve your copy in advance.
Chris has written on Wattpad, yellowpads, and notepads. A few of his articles are in the dusty archives of Inquirer’s Youngblood and Philippine Star’s My Favorite Book, while one story got lost among the Kindles on Amazon. He works as a Systems Administrator by day and a recluse at night. You can reach him on Twitter and Instagram @cd_loza.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]