Emma Donoghue’s characters cope well in captivity. In 2001’s “Slammerkin,” her brilliantly realized protagonist, Mary Saunders, revisited her colorful life as a prostitute in 18th century London while in jail. In her 2011 breakthrough “Room,” Donoghue wrote from the point of view of a child born to a mother held captive. The pair’s rescue — by most standards a welcomed event — upends the only world he had ever known.
In “Akin,” the Dublin-born author once again pairs a child and a caregiver in uncomfortable proximity. Only this time, that closeness comes during a trip to Nice, France, and the awkwardness arises from the two being strangers, although they are, as the title suggests, related.
In this odd little social experiment of a novel, the caregiver is an elderly childless scientist, Noah, who is given responsibility for his great-nephew Michael days before he heads to France. The child of wartime refugees, the widowed 79-year-old is returning to his birthplace in an attempt to understand more about his own origins, largely by tracking down the sites and people in photos he has inherited from his late sister. Eleven-year-old Michael, meanwhile, has been left in the care of an overworked social worker, following the death of his beloved grandmother. With his mother in prison and his father — Noah’s nephew — dead from an apparent overdose, Noah is viewed as the only alternative to foster care.
These are characters defined by loss and shadowed by death. Although Noah, the narrator of the shared adventure, sees himself as vibrant and engaged, he is increasingly aware of his mortality. “An old man packing his bags,” the book begins. While Noah flickers back and forth in acceptance (“Not old,” he amends; “He was only seventy-nine, till next Monday”), he doesn’t deny that he is still mourning his wife, nine years gone. Her voice, still clear in his head, usually serves as the voice of reason: “Hard not to read the situation metaphorically,” he hears her saying. Michael, meanwhile, is much more opaque, at least to the clueless Noah, although his occasional bedwetting and regular outbursts hint at the turmoil under his implacable exterior.
Grief can make people prickly, and neither of these characters comes across at first as sympathetic. In Donoghue’s sure hands, both Noah and his snarky charge are immediately distinctive, their voices clear. Neither, however, are much fun. From the start, Noah presents as stuffy and set in his ways, from his “meticulous” packing of socks to his initial reluctance to meet Michael’s incarcerated mother: “Video link would have been fine by Noah. He’d have preferred to stay at arm’s length from this whole mess.”
Michael meanwhile is described as “oppositional,” on the social worker’s report. “[G]lued to his phone,” when Noah first meets him — games being his escape from everyday life — the little boy affects a brittle toughness. “Landlord kicked us out already,” he admits, his voice “bitter.”
With no other reasonable options, the two set forth, and Michael begins to come out of his shell, at least enough to take jokey selfies. These artless snapshots annoy Noah, the grandson of a famous photographer. As the trip progresses, however, they reveal a shared interest — and the elderly aesthete soon learns that his young charge has a sharp eye.
The photos Noah has brought to Nice were apparently taken by his mother, Margot, who spent much of her life caring for her famous parent. Tracing them hints at a wartime mystery. The beautiful hotel depicted in one — where Noah has booked the pair for their stay — turns out to have been used by Nazis for detaining Jews before deportation. When Michael points out that another photo, of a haunted-looking child, is not of a young Noah, this raises speculation that his mother had an illegitimate child, perhaps by one of the city’s occupying soldiers. Hints at a darker possibility preoccupy Noah, even as he begins to mull over oddities in Michael’s more recent tragedy.
Slowly, two mysteries develop: What did Noah’s mother do in the war and why was she missing for three days? Did Michael’s father — Noah’s nephew — die from an overdose or was he killed? Together, these questions frame a flimsy plot, and although neither is decisively answered, they ultimately bring these two disparate souls together, the lack of closure in their lives serving as another tie.
By their journey’s end, Noah has accepted this uncertainty. “He supposed it was always that way with the dead,” he muses. “All we could do was remember them, as much as we could remember them . . . Walk the same streets that they’d walked; take our turn.”
With Michael, finally, relaxing in his company, Noah, perhaps for the first time, faces the future with clarity. He may even be learning to appreciate life once again, a reawakening the author depicts beautifully. “Margot had caught a split second when nothing had been happening,” Noah realizes as he views one last photograph. “How unbearably sweet she must have found this ordinariness. . . A chance to catch your breath.”
It would be a stretch to say these two loners redeem each other, but cast together, they do at least learn to reach out. By their flight back to their new, shared home, they’ve touched the reader as well.
By Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown, 352 pp., $28
Clea Simon’s most recent novel is “A Spell of Murder.” She can be reached at www.cleasimon.com.