Emma Donoghue was a successful novelist long before her seventh novel, “Room,” eclipsed all her previous work and brought her international fame. If you read it, you’ll never forget 5-year-old Jack, who describes living his entire life with Ma in a backyard dungeon. We see their lives as an unspeakable ordeal of deprivation and rape, but Jack’s mother makes sure that her son sees their tiny cell as a world filled with wonder.
With her new book, “Akin,” Donoghue returns to the story of a child and an adult trapped together. But the circumstances are far less bizarre, the constraints less intense. If “Room” was a horror novel laced with sweetness, “Akin” is a sweet novel laced with horror. It’s the story of a man learning late in life to expand his sense of family, to realize as never before who his kin are.
The protagonist is a chemistry professor named Noah Selvaggio who recently retired to avoid the risk of becoming a laughingstock. “Professor in his late seventies sounded rather admirable,” Noah thinks, “but professor in his eighties?” No thanks. That sensible decision epitomizes Noah’s tough realism. Confronted with the challenge of filling unscheduled days in New York City, he decides to jump-start his new life with a trip to Nice, France for the annual Carnival. There, he plans to celebrate his 80th birthday and reconnect with his hometown, a place he hasn’t seen since he was shipped off to America as a child to escape the Nazis.
Donoghue steeps the opening chapter in nostalgia. Noah may keep a stiff upper lip, but he regards his life as something behind him. He still carries on ironic conversations with his late wife. And he’s become fascinated by a collection of mysterious photographs taken by his mother in the early 1940s in Nice. Perhaps while he’s there, he thinks, he can identify the places and people in these long-forgotten snapshots.
But Donoghue disrupts Noah’s retrospective plans in the first 10 pages. Just days before he’s set to leave, he receives a call from the New York office of Children’s Services. The news is so unexpected that it’s practically incomprehensible to him: Due to a series of tragic deaths and incarcerations involving people he barely knows, Noah is the only relative available to provide shelter to an 11-year-old grandnephew named Michael. Guilted into taking temporary custody of this sullen urchin and unwilling to delay his trip, Noah decides to take the boy along to France.
Yes, this odd-couple situation is contrived, but it’s also continuously charming. A lifetime of scientific research and high culture have done nothing to equip Noah to care for a sixth grader. “It was exhausting,” Noah thinks, “having to translate almost every word into vocabulary he imagined an eleven-year-old would know.” He’s distressed by Michael’s bloody video games, his constant swearing, his horrendous grammar. And what on earth will he feed him — stuffed olives or marcona almonds dusted with rosemary?
Donoghue, a mother herself, has a perfect ear for the exasperated sighs of preteens. Noah can’t understand why Michael would rather stare at his phone than enjoy one of the world’s most beautiful cities. All his attempts at conversation are hilariously awkward, an excruciating transcript of impatience, misunderstandings, missed intentions:
“Do you skateboard?”
“Oh, you prefer skating? Ice or roller?”
“It’s called skating, dude.”
“No, but I’m just asking whether you do it on ice or dry land.”
Every little breakthrough of friendliness is quickly followed by another argument, a spat of defiance, an embarrassing display of rudeness. Never having raised a child, Noah finds all this drama constantly bewildering. The phrase on Michael’s T-shirt — “Winter Is Coming” — seems belated in February, but Noah gradually learns to choose his battles. “How could anyone bear to be a parent?” he wonders. “Like contracting to love a werewolf.”
For his part, Michael regards his new guardian as a dinosaur, hopelessly ignorant of anything that matters, like tennis shoes or selfies. When he asks Noah, “What’s your Wi-Fi?” the old man starts rambling on about his wife.
There’s a lot of this comedy at an old fogy’s expense. But Donoghue doesn’t just play it for laughs — or sentimentality. Part of caring for Michael, which Noah is determined to do, is trying to understand the boy’s background. And that challenge draws Noah into a world of poverty, drug use and police corruption that are totally alien to his privileged life as a university professor. Before long, Noah begins to realize just how remarkable this boy’s resilience is. “Behind the braggadocio,” he thinks, “such grief.” Michael may not know anything about prawns or cheese, but he’s knowledgeable about realms of experience that Noah didn’t even know existed — and suddenly the oppression of a previous century feels distressingly fresh again.
“Akin” offers little in the way of plot — certainly nothing like the terror of “Room” or the boisterous adventures of Donoghue’s 2014 novel, “Frog Music.” Instead, “Akin” is true to the quiet investment of time needed to win a child’s trust. The movement here is the slow accrual of affection. Noah and Michael wander around Nice, annoying French waiters and suppressing their irritation with each other with varying degrees of success. For us, the reward stems from Donoghue’s ability to wring moments of tenderness and comedy from this mismatched pair of relatives who never crossed paths in their own country.
At first, they can’t appreciate their shared passion for photography, but that gradually becomes the novel’s abiding concern. Michael uses his selfie stick to snap pictures of himself all over Nice; Noah, meanwhile, keeps trying to find the buildings and people captured in his mother’s old photos. In their own ways, they’re both looking for something essential in these images. Michael wants to create an identity, while Noah hopes to confirm his past. But as the old professor searches into the darkest corners of France’s wartime trauma, he’ll find his young charge more helpful than he ever expected.
Early in the novel, when the social worker first calls with her outlandish proposition to save this stranded child, Noah wonders, “In what sense could you really be kin to someone you’d never met?” By the end, he knows the answer to that question. Michael’s life isn’t the only one being saved here.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown. 352 pp. $28