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Akin by Emma Donoghue: Odd-couple drama is a triumph of ambition for Room writer

Family secrets emerge as a retired professor reluctantly looks after his 11-year-old great-nephew in Emma Donoghue's expanise new novel

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Author Emma Donoghue in George's Arcade, D2. Photo by Douglas O'Connor

Author Emma Donoghue in George's Arcade, D2. Photo by Douglas O'Connor

Author Emma Donoghue in George's Arcade, D2. Photo by Douglas O'Connor

That this is Emma Donoghue's first contemporary novel for adults since Room should certainly pique interest, but anyone expecting the drama, horror and suspense of the 2010 bestseller would do well to keep an open mind.

In fact, where Room's action was confined largely to a single room, Akin's scope is expansive and straddles whole decades, oceans and generations. Another triumph in ambition for Donoghue, in other words.

Noah is a retired chemistry professor hitting 80, nursing the wounds of grief now that his wife and his younger sister Fernande have died. He is comfortable, and very much set in his ways.

Into his life, and in a peculiar and unexpected way, falls a distant relative: Michael, the 11-year-old son of his wayward nephew Victor.

Victor never had much contact with Michael, whom he conceived when he was a teenager.

Michael's grandmother and carer has recently died - his parents have long succumbed to drugs - meaning that there is no-one left on the family tree to take care of him.

Begrudgingly (he still hasn't forgiven his late nephew for stealing pricey prints from his wall during a funeral), Noah agrees to assume care of the boy. Michael is no more enthused about the new set-up.

After all, as Noah posits in the opening pages, in what sense could you really be kin to someone you've never met?

The timing of this bombshell is unfortunate, too: Noah is set to take a trip to his childhood country of France. Specifically, he wants to unravel the fate of his mother, who stayed in Nice during wartime. He hasn't been in Nice since he was four, and is keen to explore his family history.

His mother Margot sent Noah to the US during WWII, then vanished after the armistice; and Noah is the descendant of a well-known photographer, Pere Sonne.

Noah's trip takes on a different meaning not just with the addition of Michael, but the discovery of some photos that Noah's mother took during the war.

Whatever about being related by blood (albeit thinly), the two make for an uneasy and incongruous pairing.

Noah is an unsentimental man who likes things done a certain way, and prefers the finer things in life. A pre-teen is predictably cramping his style.

Michael, a dyed-in-the-wool Brooklynite who grew up in roughshod circumstances, has experienced more than most children. Still, he is a fish out of water in this new rarefied world.

Tensions flare and nerves are frayed, understandably. It's a compelling dynamic for the reader, if somewhat trying and delicate for both of the characters.

Yet they have much to learn from each other; not just about the fates of their respective families, but the ways of the wider world that they know nothing about. They rub along together in a gentle, well-observed shuffle.

Donoghue's keen ability to find tenderness in tragedy has never been in doubt in previous works, and here, her powers of observation are at full pelt.

Although Noah and Michael's mysterious backstories eventually come to light, Akin is primarily a character study, and a deep psychological dive into their odd dynamic. It says much about generational differences, not to mention the vast drama and complexity that can be found in a single family tree.

Where elderly Noah may have the empathy of the reader from the outset, Michael is a surly, truculent youngster who is, as Noah himself finds initially, hard to warm to. This, presumably, is entirely the point. Donoghue is able to reveal the rawness of the child's wounds, not to mention the devastating legacy of the drugs crisis, all while making him a typically reticent pre-teen, addicted to screens and on the hunt for fast food.

Donoghue has always written youngsters with a careful hand, and here she adds humour and quick-fire wit into the mix.

All the while, the sun drenched setting of Nice blazes away in the background - a city that Donoghue has clearly extensively researched.

With every passing novel, Donoghue widens out her stylistic palette, and Akin sees the writer manage a fine balance between sentimentality and lightness, without resorting to anything mawkish.

As ever, there's a dollop of lyricism on every page. It may be slightly rich for some fans of Room, but there's no doubting its satisfying density.

Donoghue's WWII-era plot is certainly not fresh territory, which is a curiosity given that she is the doyenne of the groundbreaker.

But really, it's Michael and Noah's tentative building of something resembling a kinship that is likely to stay with the reader long after they've bade them farewell on the last page.

Akin Emma Donoghue Picador, hardback, 385 pages, €23.80

Indo Review