Akin by Emma Donoghue

Akin is a novel about unlikely travel companions looking for answers and for similarities and compromises that will get them through the present. Noah is a retired professor in New York, about to take a trip to Nice—where he was born—for his eightieth birthday. Just before he leaves, he gets a phone call that will change everything: his eleven year old great-nephew who he’s never met needs a temporary guardian, and Noah is the closest kin to Michael who is available. Suddenly Noah and Michael find themselves together in France, clashing over everything, but Noah ends up on a quest to work out the mysteries behind some old photos taken by his mother and Michael might be able to help point him in the right directions.

Donoghue takes a short space of time—the trip to Nice—and fills it with the present and past in a way that works well, as Noah thinks about family across generations and the history of Nice during the Second World War but the narrative stays firmly in the present day. There are a lot of details that make it thoroughly modern—from the realities of what children see on the internet to how technology can help solve old mysteries—but it also has a sense of the past and how people are shaped by it. The mirroring of this not only through Noah’s family history but through Michael’s—with his mother in prison and questions around his dead father—shows that family and history can be varying categories, but still with similar connections and dangers. The writing style makes the novel very easy to get into and it is more gripping than expected as the trip unfurls.

Akin is often very much about the personal—about specific relatives and about two people trying to compromise being forced together—but also tries to keep an eye on larger issues at stake. There perhaps could have been more made of the class issues that are important undercurrents to the novel, but as it is through Noah’s perspective, it seems purposeful at times that he often doesn’t realise how different his and Michael’s lives are not from an age perspective, but a class one. It is a book that ultimately tries to be uplifting and to show that people can have more in common or find more ways to relate than might be expected, and one that you could imagine being made into a film.