Book Review: Akin by Emma Donoghue

It is hard to imagine Akin was written by the same author who created mega-selling Room, shortlisted for the Booker and made into a movie in 2015. Room is a novel told from the point of view of a five-year-old boy held captive with his mother in a room custom built by a psychopath. Akin is quite a different style of novel, narrated by Noah, a retired science professor about to take a trip to Nice to investigate a few years in the life of his mother during World War II. What the two novels do have in common is Donoghue’s amazing skill with characters, an ability to get inside their heads to tell a story.

Noah is a New Yorker, scholarly, urbane and without any family – his wife, Joan, died some years ago and he has recently lost his sister. Mere days before he is due to depart for Nice, a social worker contacts him to ask if he can be the temporary carer for Michael, the eleven-year-old son of his late nephew. There’s nobody else, it seems. So suddenly Noah has a travel companion, a stressed and grieving boy from Brooklyn, who doesn’t know much about good manners but is streetwise when it comes to drugs and violence. The perfect odd couple.

Akin is a novel of many layers. The most obvious one is the story of Noah and Michael and what begins as a grudging acceptance of each other and how this develops into something more. Blood is thicker than water fortunately because there are lots of bridges to build here.

Then there is the story of Noah’s famous photographer grandfather, Père Sonne, and Margot, his mother, who stayed behind in France during the war, sending Noah to New York and his father. This has rankled with Noah, he was only three, and why did she leave with his sister a strange collection of photographs from her war years? The pictures are part of Noah’s luggage along with his grandfather’s famous fedora. Noah’s visit to Nice is about discovering the past and coincides with his eightieth birthday; now with Michael in tow, he is forced to think about a different kind of future.

Noah begins to fit together his mother’s story, with help from Michael who is unsurprisingly nifty on the ‘net. We learn more about Nice during the war, where a resistance group, the Marcel Network, saved over 500 Jewish children from the concentration camps. What was Margot’s connection? Was she a resistance fighter or a collabo? Noah is terrified the snapshots prove the latter. Michael also knows about ‘snitches’ and there are connections with the drug deal that was the undoing of his father, and the reason his mother is in prison. So many layers.

And then there is the story of Nice itself. Noah is the perfect tour guide. He speaks French and translates it for the benefit of Michael, often playing with words and meanings in an interesting way. We visit restaurants where they serve delicacies such as testicules de mouton panés (crispy fried sheeps balls) and tête de veau avec langue (calf’s head with tongue), while Michael holds out for for American hotdogs and chicken nuggets. There are stories about the Roman occupation of Nice, of saints and angels. Nice is a rich and colourful place.

Akin takes its time, slowly pulling you into Noah’s and Michael’s developing relationship and the story of Nice as well. It’s a book to savour, but it’s gripping too with plenty to entertain – a five out of five read from me.

Book Review: This Poison Will Remain by Fred Vargas

Fred Vargas writes a beguiling and often unusual mystery novel. Her series featuring Commissaire Adamsberg and the Serious Crimes Bureau is immensely entertaining for the weird and wonderful storylines and oddball criminals – usually serial killers of some kind with motives beyond the everyday. The latest book – This Poison Will Remain – involves a type of murder no one believes to be anything other blood-poisoning following a spider bite. In Nimes three old men suffer septicaemia and die, but they were old, right? Could happen to anyone, right?

Jean Baptiste Adamsberg, with his nose for the uncanny, thinks otherwise. But he’s going to have a tough time convincing his team to agree with him. Particularly Commandant Danglard, his second in command and former friend. Danglard, in his impeccable English tailoring has become a formidable opponent and with his gift with words and sharp intellect, he soon has the others thinking Adamsberg has lost the plot. This is a new Danglard. In previous books we see him sipping wine on the job and bemoaning his problematic home-life.

You soon realise that this is not your usual police station. There’s Mercadet whose narcolepsy interrupts his police work daily, so he has a cushiony corner in a quiet office where he can catnap. Maternal Helene Froissy keeps a cupboardful of snacks at the ready and helps Adamsberg look after a family of blackbirds who have nested in the courtyard. Amazonian Violette Retancourt is ‘worth ten men’ and is devoted to Snowball the cat who sleeps on top of the photocopier no one uses but is always on to keep it warm. Voisenet would rather be an ichthyologist and stinks out the office with the head of a moray eel he plans to study. Veyrenc hails from the same corner of the Pyrenees as Adamsberg. With his black-and-ginger striped hair, the result of bullies trying to scalp him as a boy, he bursts into clunky Alexandrine verse at every opportunity.

It is Veyrenc whom Adamsberg first turns to for help in solving the mystery of the spider bites, secretly at first. It emerges that two of the victims lived at the same orphanage and were part of a gang who tormented the other boys, hiding recluse spiders in their clothing. In those days before readily available antibiotics, some of their victims endured terrible injuries. If someone was out for revenge, it would be fitting to kill them with spider venom from the same kind of spider, but such spiders are rare and you would need dozens to produce enough poison. And how on earth would you milk the spider venom anyway?

It seems an impossible puzzle, so it isn’t surprising Adamsberg and Veyrenc adjourn to a nearby café, called La Garbure, after the traditional cabbage soup from the Pyrenees, to discuss the case. This is something else I love about the series. Reminiscent of novels by Simenon, Fred Vargas conjures up Paris through Adamsberg’s walks by the Seine, and scenes set in cafés and restaurants. Veyrenc has a bit of thing for La Garbure’s proprietress and the two send each other glances across the room without quite catching each other’s eye.

Like the best crime fiction, the story is very much character driven, but Vargas has plenty of surprises in store for the reader to keep you turning the pages. Adamsberg has the challenge not only of solving the most perplexing of crimes, one that will take him back to the memory of a terrible event from his childhood, but he must also win back the loyalty of his team. Themes around child abuse, mental illness, isolation and the history of religious hermits give the story plenty of depth.

This Poison Will Remain is an excellent read, with a superb English translation that maintains the spirit of the author’s unique, lively and very French style. A four star read from me.