Autumn usually sees the publication of novels by popular authors in the run-up to Christmas and there are some excellent ones appearing on the shelves this year. ‘Akin’ by Emma Donoghue tells the story of Noah Selvaggio is a widower and retired chemistry professor born in France and based in New York. He is planning his first visit back to Nice since he was a child in time for his 80th birthday. However, he discovers he has an 11-year-old great-nephew called Michael whose father died from a drug overdose and whose mother is in prison. Noah is the only relative available to take care of Michael and he decides to take him along on his trip of a lifetime.
Donoghue remains best known for her last contemporary novel ‘Room’ which also explored the bonds between an adult and child relationship. The setting of ‘Akin’ is less claustrophobic and the stakes are not quite as high but the bigger generational divide poses interesting challenges for the characters. Michael is often obnoxious, prone to wild exaggeration and bravado but also has bouts of vulnerability as a result of his unstable upbringing. Noah is set in his ways and frequently exasperated by Michael’s behaviour. However, there is also charm in the way they slowly get to know each other and navigate a foreign culture together. In many ways, Noah and Michael’s growing bond is reminiscent of the way Carl and Russell are depicted in the Pixar film ‘Up’.
The book is fairly light on plot which centres on the mystery of some Occupation-era photographs taken by Noah’s mother as he seeks to understand more about his family’s past. The circumstances of Michael’s childhood are also explored sensitively and Donoghue thankfully avoids oversentimentality in this well observed and moving “odd couple” story.
Donoghue is one of the most versatile authors writing today, equally adept at historical and contemporary fiction. Another author whose career looks like it could be heading in this direction is Jessie Burton. One of the small reservations I had about her first two novels ‘The Miniaturist’ and ‘The Muse’ was that the historical context was often explained through slightly unnatural dialogue between characters. Thankfully, this is not an issue at all in her third novel ‘The Confession’ which is set in present-day London and 1980s California.
Young and naive Elise Morceau meets older, charismatic Constance “Connie” Holden on Hampstead Heath in 1980. They fall in love, moving to Los Angeles where Connie’s book is being adapted into a film, but their relationship becomes acrimonious. Some three decades later, Rose Simmons approaches Connie, now back in London living semi-reclusively, with questions about her mother who abandoned her when she was a baby.
I particularly enjoyed the scenes where Rose was living with Connie, having secured a job as her assistant under an assumed name and keeping up the pretence of a false identity while seeking information about her mother. The depiction of Rose’s troubled relationship with her boyfriend Joe at the time of her life in her mid-thirties when breaking up with him means she may not have the chance to become a mother is also sensitively portrayed. A complex and thoughtful analysis of how women can struggle with confidence and taking control of their lives, ‘The Confession’ is Burton’s strongest novel to date and I hope to see her writing more contemporary fiction in the future.
Many thanks to Pan Macmillan for sending copies of both books via NetGalley.