“Akin” by Emma Donoghue

Genre:  Domestic FictionAkin
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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“The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue

Pub. Date:  September 20, 2016wonder

Publisher:  Little, Brown and Company

Every part of this novel had me until it didn’t, which wasn’t until the last chapter. But I am ahead of myself.  The year is 1859.  The protagonist is an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War.  She is a firm believer in science, not God’s will, and was taught to never let her emotions get in the way of her job.  Between the choice of sitting with a dying soldier to bring him comfort until he has drawn his last breath or moving onto another patient whose life she may still be able to save, our heroine was taught to harden her heart and move on. She is living in London when she is offered an unusual two-week nursing position in Ireland.  Her job is to observe an 11-year-old girl who supposedly has not eaten in months. The residents of this section in Ireland, where the child lives, are devoutly Roman Catholic.   The town believes that the 11-year-old is a living saint.  The nurse’s views are in sharp difference from her patient as well as her patient’s entire village.  She feels the residents are believers in mysticism rather than religion.

The child is becoming a legend with pilgrims visiting from all over to meet her, which is how our nurse got her job.  A committee in the little girl’s village is formed to investigate the case. The nurse’s job is to ensure that it is true the child has not been receiving any nourishment.  The committee wants proof on whether this is truly a miracle or if someone is sneaking her food, so the nurse will live in the child’s room to begin the watch. Of course the all science, no-nonsense nurse does not believe in miracles and comes to Ireland positive that she will put an end to this hoax.  She soon realizes the committee’s true wish is for the child to be declared a living saint to bring recognition to their small village.  They want this even though it is obvious to all the child will soon die.  At first the nurse thinks the child’s religious devotion is histrionic.  Then she comes to feel the whole town is delusional and that her patient is a victim of child abuse.  The family has already lost a son. The nurse cannot understand why the parents aren’t forcing their only remaining child to eat.  During her short employment, the nurse is charmed by her 11-year-old patient’s sweetness, impressed with her intelligence, and in awe of her dedication to fast, knowing it will mean her death.  The child seems to think it is her duty to die.

This story is thought provoking in so many ways.  It forces the reader to think of topics such as, science vs. religion, how Ireland’s potato famine affected the country’s lack of shock to seeing starvation, the different religious beliefs in all the sects of Christianity, the connection between siblings, child abuse, and the legal vs. moral matters.  The reason the book lost me is I feel the ending of the story is too neat with no loose ends; it could be tied up in a bow.  The author opens too many cans of worms for such an ending.  I wonder if she missed an opportunity for a slam ending.  But this is just my evaluation and you may disagree.   This is a gripping story that I found very hard to put down and I bet you won’t be able to either.