Friday Night Book Club: Read an excerpt from Akin, the funny and heart-wrenching new novel from bestselling author Emma Donoghue
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend!
Staying in this evening? Get comfortable with a glass of wine and this exclusive extract from Akin by Emma Donoghue.
About the book
In her first contemporary novel since Room, bestselling author Emma Donoghue returns with her next masterpiece, a brilliant tale of love, loss and family. A retired New York professor’s life is thrown into chaos when he takes his great-nephew to the French Riviera, in hopes of uncovering his own mother’s wartime secrets.
Noah is only days away from his first trip back to Nice since he was a child when a social worker calls looking for a temporary home for Michael, his 11-year-old great-nephew. Though he has never met the boy, he gets talked into taking him along to France.
This odd couple, suffering from jet lag and culture shock, argue about everything from steak haché to screen time, and the trip is looking like a disaster. But as Michael’s ease with tech and sharp eye help Noah unearth troubling details about their family’s past, both of them come to grasp the risks that people in all eras have run for their loved ones, and find they are more akin than they knew.
Written with all the tenderness and psychological intensity that made Room a huge bestseller, Akin is a funny, heart-wrenching tale of an old man and a boy who unpick their painful story and start to write a new one together.
Read the excerpt:
An old man packing his bags.
Hard not to read the situation metaphorically, Joan commented in his head.
Noah corrected her: not old. He was only seventy-nine, till next Monday. When he’d been young, your seventies had counted as old, but not these days. Say, youngish up to sixty; then middle-aged, or young-old, through the sixties and seventies. Ancient Romans used to distinguish between senectus (still lively) and decrepitus (done for). Sharp as ever, hale, hearty – surely Noah could still count himself in the senectus camp?
And these were only literal bags he was packing – well, one slim carry-on and his leather satchel. Also, his destination was neither heaven nor hell. Though the mention of Nice, or the French Riviera, or the South of France generally, did make people roll their eyes in envy, especially in a New York February.
Noah was going to Nice for his eightieth. He hadn’t been since he was four. There’d been nothing pulling him back to his hometown; after all, he didn’t know anyone in that part of the world, not since his grandfather had died in 1944. That had freed his mother (Margot) to join his father (Marc) and little Noah in the States. (He’d still been Noé, then.)
Noah folded another shirt. He wasn’t flying out for another three days, but he liked to get his packing done early, to leave time for last-minute chores. Meticulous, he found each balled pair of socks its nook.
He’d never been a keen traveler – because of his rather yanked-about childhood, he supposed. Going to American Chemical Society meetings, all he’d cared about was whether he’d find himself stuck with the graveyard shift (8 a.m. on Sunday) for his paper on, say, polyvinyl-chloride fibers. He’d accompanied Joan on most of her work trips, though as the decades went by she’d started turning down all the invitations she could, everything but the most prestigious keynotes; she recoiled from the prospect of extra nights in hotels. She and Noah had never vacationed much, either. When Joan wasn’t in the lab or on the road, she liked to be at home, buried in a novel, Miles Davis on the record player. Or dropping into sleep in their bed (double; queen was too wide). Back to back, her leathery soles touching Noah’s.
I miss that too, Joan said.
Which was nonsense, of course, because there was no Joan to miss anything anymore: no soles, no souls. These remarks of hers were generated by Noah’s brain, using their not-quite-forty years of marriage as an algorithm. A neurological tic.
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.
Noah supposed what had finally nudged him over the line was his imminent birthday. Professor in his late seventies sounded rather admirable, but professor in his eighties? He’d had no intention of carrying on long enough to end up a laughing stock. Students were harder to impress since the turn of the millennium; they sat there with their external brains, their little screens, ready to fact-check you if you fumbled a formula.
No, it was better to call a halt before the first time Noah’s wits deserted him at a podium. Retired, though; the moribund ring of the word. But then, it had been only a month. Of course he’d have plenty to do. Who could be bored in New York City? It was just a matter of picking how to spend his days. He’d declined the title of professor emeritus; pottering around campus doing a little independent research struck him as pathetic. If Noah was going to study, it would be some quite new subject. Or a hobby; he was sure he’d come across something of interest. He just had to find his feet. His first venture was this trip.
Once he’d zipped up his case, he went to fetch the recycling tub from the kitchen and carried it into the spare room. This had been his and Joan’s home office, but after her death the sight of it had weighed on him, and really he’d preferred to work on campus, so he’d turned it into a guest room. Though now Noah couldn’t remember who his last guest had been. The double bed was always made up, as if ready for a visitor; tidier that way. Several times Joan’s friend Vivienne had suggested he invite a refugee to move in, but Noah couldn’t face housing some stranger.
He knelt to tug Fernande’s boxes from under the bed. Only three left to deal with; just personal papers. (He found objects more troubling.) The Swedes had a word for when you spared your family by tidying up your own stuff in advance – Noah couldn’t call up the syllables, but it meant “death cleaning”. It had been Margot who’d sorted Marc’s effects. (Did you have to be dead for your belongings to be called that, he wondered?)
Fernande had done it in turn for Margot, and then for her own husband, Dan, and she’d helped her brother after he’d lost Joan, too, though Joan had been so ruthless about clutter (tossing Christmas cards on the first of January) that there hadn’t been much to do. So Fernande’s death last year was the first time Noah had been given this task to do alone. He was nearly done, he promised himself as he sat on the edge of the bed.
Hospital invoices, her powers of attorney, Living Will, and DNR – irrelevant now. Recipes, postcards, photos, appeals from charities, offers from The Great Courses – recycle them all. It was odd to be disposing of the remnants of a younger sister’s life, when logically Noah should have gone before her. Deciding what to keep for sentimental reasons was tricky because there was no one left but Noah. The knack, he’d found over the past year, was to keep sentimentality at bay; to ask, about each item, Does anyone need or want this? until at rare intervals a real feeling flooded over the levee.
This afternoon he found himself saying yes to just three items: the wedding menu from 1982 (Prawn Cocktail, Chicken Vol-au-Vents, Profiteroles); a photo of Fernande in 1990, wild-eyed with bliss after her home birth, a newborn Victor on her chest (those eyelashes!); and a curling sheaf of comic haiku she’d made up for everyone at the Thanksgiving table in 2002. A postwar baby with chipmunk cheeks, Fernande had always had a warmth and lightsomeness foreign to Noah, eight years her senior.
Clippings from magazines, straight into the recycling. Letters in handwriting Noah couldn’t make out, Get Well Soon cards … let it all go. What did a life add up to – Fernande’s, anyone’s? The papers were almost overflowing the tub. Like leaves, he told himself grimly; grow, shed, rot, repeat.
The minute Noah was done, he was going to treat himself to a cognac as well as a cigarette. (The third of his never-more-than-seven a day.)
Just as he tossed a copy of Marie Claire from August 1992, his fingers sensed an odd stiffness. He leaned over to pick it out of the tub. Tucked in the middle, a rigid mailer with nothing written on it – cardboard on one side, brown paper (softened by years) on the other. August 1992: that was the month after Margot’s death. The envelope felt empty till Noah slid his fingers in. He recognized the sharp edges. Photographs.
He tugged them out, pulse thumping just in case they were Père Sonne’s. Half a dozen or so, black and white, clearly old from the format (two and a half inches by three and a half, he’d guess). From the clothes, hair and general aesthetic they looked 1930s, ’40s maybe. Mostly taken in the street; the setting plausibly though not definitively Nice. Noah polished his fingerprints off the top one (a dandyish man with a cane, caught in profile). But as he leafed through the photos – nine in total – disappointment came fast. None of these bore Père Sonne’s stamp. Besides, they were no good.
Slipshod, unilluminating. A Belle Époque building, for instance, cropped at the third floor. An awkward close-up of a box, rectangular, inscribed with a circle, a dash on each side. This stock scene of a middle-aged couple on a bench, seen from behind. A woman with coiled hair, again from the rear – was that angle in vogue at the time, he wondered, the equivalent of pursed-lip selfies today? A shot of children’s feet trotting by was cute in a generic way. Tree roots, not even well framed. None of the subjects was looking at the camera apart from one smiling boy with dark combed-back hair who had to be small Noé, though Noah didn’t quite recognize himself.
He had to assume it was his mother who’d taken all these. But she must have known better, after decades working with – for – under – her mighty father. Surely she could have borrowed Père Sonne’s superb Contax, or even one of his little portable Leicas? This shot of an empty street, for instance – hadn’t she meant to press the shutter just then?
No commercial studio’s stamp on the backs, only jotted letters in two cases: MZ for the woman seen from behind, RJ for little Noah. (Unless it was R.J., a pair of initials? In which case the boy wasn’t Noah at all.) That meant Margot must have printed them herself, in the reeking darkroom in their apartment near the Cours Saleya.
He couldn’t think of anyone else’s brain to pick about this but Vivienne’s. Besides, he’d owed her a call for months.
“Excited for your big trip?”
“I suppose.” Noah often caught a faint whiff of the patronizing in Vivienne’s tone; a hint of the kindergarten teacher. She wouldn’t have been his choice, as a friend – nor vice versa, he supposed. They’d inherited each other from Joan, who’d been Vivienne’s best friend ever since they’d seized on each other as the two Jews in first grade in their tony New York girls’ school in 1942. “How are your people?”
“The kids and so forth?”
Noah knew that Vivienne’s great-granddaughter in Texas was starting ballet, her grandchildren there and in Oregon were doing postgraduate degrees, and her grown kids in New Jersey and Tel Aviv were going through the minor health indignities of their fifties. “No, actually I was thinking of the Sudanese in your spare room.”
“Oh, the Abdullahs are Yemenis. They’re fine, more than fine – they’re pregnant.”
Noah rolled his eyes. If the couple raised a child in Vivienne’s apartment, would that give them squatters’ rights? Well, let the bank worry about that; she’d reverse-mortgaged the place and was spending the proceeds on her pet causes. (She’d always been a do-gooder – the polar opposite of Joan, whose research was of such clear importance that she’d felt entitled to be selfish in her time off.) Noah occasionally warned Vivienne to keep enough for paying strangers to wipe her butt in the end, but she insisted, on the basis of extensive genealogical research, that no one in her gene pool made it past eighty-five.
He remembered what he was calling about. “The thing is, I’ve found these old photos in the last box of Fernande’s stuff—”
Even if Vivienne had been right here in the hall with Noah, he’d have had to describe them, as she was legally blind. (She’d announced it last year, in an email so perky as to sound proud.) Losing her sight in her early eighties had barely slowed the woman down. She used software that read aloud whatever was on her screen; she’d had the tech guy set it to “Male Australian” to remind her of Frank.
Noah did his best to summarize the images, leafing through them awkwardly with one hand.
“Doesn’t everyone have some crappy photos—lots of them?”
“But why would my mother have bothered taking these – early ’40s, I’m guessing, when she was still in Nice, without me and my father – and printing them, and holding on to them till the end of her days? Then she gave them to my sister, or more likely just left them in a drawer. And why didn’t Fernande mention them to me?”
“No names at all?” Vivienne asked.
“Just what looks like initials on the backs of two.”
“Well, you might spot some of the locations when you’re in Nice. As for the human subjects, maybe try the public library. They’ll have some kind of local history collection. If you find any names, give me a shout.”
Vivienne was in touch with distant cousins all over the world, having subscribed to various databases and sent off a saliva swab to a lab. Noah supposed a sense of tribe was crucial if you’d lost your parents. (Her father in the Holocaust, her mother in its long aftermath.) Just when Vivienne’s sight had started really failing, she’d gone off to stay with a family in Spain who’d turned out not to be related to her at all, but she had no regrets; said it was very jolly.