Genre: Domestic Fiction
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Pub. Date: Sept. 10, 2019
This novel has shades of Fredrik Backman’s, “A Man Called Ove.” “Akin” also revolves around a lonely, elderly widower who learns to broaden his definition of family. In Emma Donoghue’s latest book, she gets the reader to think about the meaning of love, freedom, and family. If you read the author’s “Room,” you probably won’t forget the 5-year-old boy’s perspective of being held captive with his kidnapped mother in an outdoor shed. In her latest tale, she returns to the story of a child and an adult trapped—this time figuratively—together. It takes a while to make that connection between the novels since the circumstances this time are unusual, but not bizarre. “Room” was a horror novel laced with sweetness. “Akin” is a sweet novel laced with the horrors of living in poverty. Donough’s latest novel is good but, “Room” is the stronger of the two books.
The protagonist is a newly retired 79-year-old chemistry professor. He is preparing for a week-long visit to Nice, France, where he was born. He hasn’t seen his birthplace since he was shipped off to America as a child to escape the Nazis. Days away from his trip, he receives an out-of-the-blue phone call from a social worker. The author does such a good job nailing the harried life of those who work in social services. “She turned out to have a caseload of twenty-four…when asked how she remembered who was who, she laughed darky and said that she and her colleagues were just doing triage.” The reason behind her call is that a boy’s grandmother, who he was living with, just passed away. His father died of an overdose and his mother is incarcerated. She informs him that the boy is his eleven-year-old great-nephew and needs a temporary home or he will be placed in foster care. The distant relatives have never met. They live in different worlds. The uncle has a privileged and cultured lifestyle residing in the upper west side of NYC. The boy’s world consists of poverty, drugs, gangs and police corruption that can be found in some areas of Brooklyn, NY.
The uncle takes his nephew with him to France (if he didn’t there wouldn’t be a story) with the intention of returning him to the social worker once they are back in the States. As you can probably guess, there are funny scenes written into the dialogue and interactions between them. In a way, Donoghue gives us a 2019 version of “The Odd Couple.” They wander around Nice, irritated with each other and aggravating everyone who comes in contact with them. The boy regards his new guardian as a dinosaur, while his video games, selfie stick, cursing, and horrendous grammar drive the uncle crazy. There is a side plot devoted to the man’s long deceased mother. The old gent has reasons to suspect that his mother was a member of the Nazi party. Man and boy go on a quest to learn the truth. The author may have stumbled here. Not by adding in a historical fiction component but, with their thoughts on what may have happened. Their repetitive mental guesses become annoying and interfered with an otherwise touching tale. “He and this boy were quite alien to each other, yet, in an odd way, akin.” You might have also guessed that by the end of the book the boy’s life isn’t the only one being rescued.
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