Sally Flint

Book Review of Emma Donoghue's Akin

Emma Donoghue’s Akin is a great reading choice for anyone who is interested in exploring family relationships. A passing interest in Science would be an added bonus as there are even amusing Science jokes thrown in as Donaghoe is clearly either very knowledgable about Chemistry or has done her research well. As far as book reviews go, my comments are mixed, but overall favourable.

Akin is a story about an 80 year old, retired Chemistry professor, Noah Selvaggio who reluctantly takes guardianship of his great nephew Michael, whose mother is in jail, possibly for a crime she didn’t commit and whose father has died, perhaps of an overdose.

On one level this is a wonderful book. The relationship succesfully shows how despite the two generation gap, Michael and Noah have more in common than either might have imagined. On a slightly more universal level it reveals how change is a good thing and how regeneration of spirit and life interest can appear when it is least expected. In this respect the book is excellent.

Where my observations are less favourable of Emma Donoghue’s Akin are regarding the substantial number of unaswered questions and ‘maybe’ scenarios.) I felt a little bit the same about what happened in the inbetween years of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and Testaments!) As mentioned we only get a small insight into what happens to Michael’s parents, and there is little to indicate that that this will be thoroughly explored. It feels like a missed opportunity that could have been built into the structure of the book. This is something that I thought might have been explored in the New York Times book review of Akin.

The sub-plot of the story is also full of maybes.. Whilst visiting Nice we are encouraged to join the characters on an exploration of what role Noah’s own mother played during the resistance movement of World War 2. Was she a traitor or hero? The unanswered questions here are more acceptable and create a tone of realism, There is no doubting Donaghoe’s excellent understanding of this historical period.. (It came as no surprise to learn that she had spent periods of her adult life living in France in this area.)

Other aspects of the exploration, such as Michael’s ‘tech’ expertise, juxtaposed against Noah’s ineptness are not completely convincing. Noah’s intellect is such that he is likely to be more than skilled at basic google search. (Perhaps my concern here is more a reflection on myself than necessary!) The representation of the social services organisation also feels a little unconvincing. Would an old man really be able to take an eleven year old boy out of the country so last minute? Perhaps it doesn’t really matter, but as a piece of realistic fiction, especially by a writer who is an expert in historical writing, I was not completed convinced.

Emma Donoghue's Akin would be a great bookclub choice

Book Discussion Questions for Akin by Emma Donoghue

Michael’s social worker warns Noah that Michael’s behaviour can be challenging? How successfully did Donoghue portray this? What techniques did she employ?

In the story Noah is very distressed when he thinks his mother works as a German spy during World War 2, however, he learns later (spoiler alert) that she actually worked for the resistance movement. Can you find any parallels between this sub-plot and the story of Michael and his own parents?

What are the main themes explored in this story?What similarities of character did Michael and his Great Uncle Noah share?

Throughout the book Noah frequently educates Michael, explaining every day phenomena as Chemistry constructs. He even explains away his dead wife’s imaginary verbal interjections in his life. and dismisses them when they don’t equate with his desires. How did this enhance or detract from your understandng of character and affect your enjoyment of the story?

In the book Noah realises that Michael is saving him as much as he is saving Michael. He decides to stop smoking and take better care of his health in the hope of increasing his longevity of life. How do you think the unwritten future story of Michael and Noah will pan out? 

In the story Donoghue makes several references to class and wealth. Do you think Michael’s mum would have been less likely to be in jail if she was of a higher social standing? 

What do you think really happened to Amber and Victor?  

We learn far more about Noah’s thoughts and emotions throughout the story than we do about those of Michael. What adjectives would you use to sum up Michael?

How would the story have been different if Michael had been a girl? Having discussed this explore what this reveals about your pre-existing views on gender and identity. 

Do you think Noah made a wise or foolish choice to have Michael move in with him? Is Donaghue making any statement or judgement about Noah’s and Joan’s prior life and lifestyle choices? If so what? 

Book Club Questions for Emma Donoghue's Akin (when you haven't read the book!)

Emma Donoghue, most famous for Room, but we are discussing Akin, her latest book.

Do you think it is possible for an 80 year old man to effectively care for a teenager? 

In the story Noah dislikes Michael’s swearing and playing of violent games on his phone? Why do generational differences of outlook like these appear and how significant are they? 

Why does Noah throw away the hat he has cherished for so many years? Why does Michael rescue it the next day? 

Michael has a keen interest in taking photographs and particularly selfies. Donoghue seems to be suggesting that he may have inherited some of his Noah’s father’s talent. Do you have any inherited talent that you would like to share?

If you were placed in a situation where you had the opportunity to risk your own safety and life in order to save others do you think you would be a ‘hero’ or a ‘coward’? 

Would you be prepared to ‘take on’ and bring up a teenager, if you were the only family in a position to be able to help? Why or why not? 

Summing up of Akin by author Emma Donoghue

I had no idea how many books Emma Donoghue had actually written. I, like many other readers, probably know her largely because of the excruciatingly painful to read Room. Distressing and brilliant in equal measures. I was not disappointed by this later text and will definitely go on to seek out more Emma Donoghue books to read now. For me the ability to create convincing characters who the reader cares about is the number one requirement of godo fiction. In this respect Emma Donoghue was extremely successful. 

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