We are all creatures of habit. Our thoughts and beliefs force us into realms of convenience that make us believe our lives are perfect for us. Yet we find ourselves being thrust into situations that force us to change not only our lifestyles but our personal beliefs and understandings. Emma Donoghue has given us a touching example of this example in her touching novel Akin.
Was that five pairs of socks or six? He counted them again.
For the past nine years, on his own, Noah had kept himself too busy for vacations. There’d been hints that he should retire, of course; barbed remarks from colleagues, cost-cutting ones from the dean, benevolent ones from women friends, to the effect that Noah should learn to kick back, live a little, join a choir or take up tai chi in Central Park. His little sister, Fernande, was the only one who’d never suggested it, even though she’d retired from her receptionist job with relief at sixty-five. She must have guessed that her widowed brother needed to stay tethered to the surface of the earth. Having classes to teach – the hard slog of preparation and performance and marking – had reassured him of that much.
Donaghue gives us Noah as a protagonist. We meet this ‘still seventy-nine’ as he is packing his bags for a long-overdue vacation to his child hometown of Nice, France. In that opening we engage his thoughts learning that he had a long career in scientific research and academia He is recently widowed yet still has conversations with his wife in his head. His life was settled and contemplative when all of the sudden the phone rings and a social worker begs him to take care of an eleven-year-old great nephew in desperate need of care.
“Sorry not to be of more use, Ms. Figueroa” -no trouble remembering the name the crook had given, now, if he took a split second to get the vowels in the correct sequence – “but I’ve got to go now.”
It wasn’t the word but Rosa Figueroa’s tone that made Noah pause, receiver halfway to the cradle. She did should like a real person, and so weary. “It’s just that I don’t see how I can be of any practical help,” he told her. Certainly not in the immediate . . . I’m off to France next week, as it happens. Maybe after I get back we could speak again.”
“This can’t wait. I met Michael for the first time myself this morning. There’s nobody at all to look after him.”
It wasn’t subtle, how she was playing on Noah’s sympathies. He wanted a cigarette.
“Could you come and meet his mother with me, tomorrow morning?”
“But – “
“Let’s all just sit down and put our heads together, all right to see what can be done for this child?”
While this an adorable and humorous story, Donoghue has documented truths about the human condition. Not only do readers witness clashes between young and old but we see contrasts between; European and American values, crashes of the actions of the past looked through the lens of modern history, and even gender politics come into play here. This is a book that is enjoyable to read but, if mindfully done, can be an enlightening read as well.
“You were asleep forever,” Michael complained.
“It was only a nap. How did you pass the time?”
The boy held up his phone. “Thirty-one kills.”
Noah’s generation had gotten more fresh air, he decided, but also probably more fractures, playing such perennial favorites as Johnny-on-the-Pony (in which one team leaped on the backs of the other until the whole human pile crashed to the ground). He wondered now how a gamer like Michael had broken his collarbone.
Emma Donoghue has given readers not only a touching novel with Akin but one that is quietly enlightening about the human condition as well. In short, a good read but one that is thought-provoking if it is carefully done.
Link to HarperCollins Canada’s website for Akin