Emma Donoghue’s new novel explores our mysterious parents

Emma Donoghue. Photo: Punch Photography

Emma Donoghue has dedicated her latest novel Akin to her teenaged son Finn. But it’s more than a nod to his relationship with her.

Finn was the inspiration for one of the two protagonists in the book — a feisty, streetwise 11 year old named Michael who serves as a foil and a prod to the nearly 80 year old Noah, who has ended up looking after the lad while he heads to Nice, France, to find out more about the mystery that is his mother.

“Our son Finn is 15 now and he definitely inspired Michael. My kids grow up faster than the books happen so they end up older than the characters they inspired,” she said. “All the cheek and argumentation of Michale comes from Finn.

“There were times when I was writing the book. I would say to him if he had behaved  badly in a restaurant or something that I was going to use that in the book. He’d then offer some suggestions on how the kid could go even farther.”

There is a scene in Akin in which Michael steals something from a museum in Nice. Donoghue’s Finn did not steal anything “but he definitely did annoy the curator of the museum.”

Akin is a contemporary novel but it is connect to the history of the Second World War and the Holocaust that was taking place in Nice, along with the rest of Vichy, France.

Noah’s mother had stayed in Nice when the war broke out. She would eventually send Noah to the U.S. but she remained behind. What happened in those years was something Noah, recently widowed and aging, wanted to uncover. However just before he is to leave, he is approached as the only relative capable of looking after Michael. His father was dead of a drug overdoes and his mother was in prison.

The setting of the novel in Nice was the result of two years spent by Donoghue and her partner in the City on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Her partner was on a sabbatical.

“It’s tourist heaven, but everywhere you go there are these little plaques memorializing all the dark history that has happened there.

“My typical memory of Nice would be sitting in the sun, eating a buttery pastry and seeing a little plaque saying who had been hanged there in 1944. It makes for a good mixture: you can write a novel about quite a dark subject without the setting being gloomy.

“I definitely knew the reader would get some kind of vicarious pleasure from the setting.” That allowed her to sneak in quite a lot of “fretting over history and mortality and so on. The sunshine distracts you.”

Akin is not the first novel Donoghue has written with a child at the centre. In Room, her most successful novel, a five year old boy is a key character. In The Wonder, which has been adapted for the screen, a young girl starves herself almost to death for religious reasons.

“I have to say that kids have kind of taken me over. They seemed to have moved into my imagination 16 years ago when my first child was born and haven’t left yet. One of these days I am going to write a book with no children in it.”

The real brilliance of children as an element of fiction, she said, is that “they are strangers come to town. They are new to our world. They ask the tough questions. Nowadays we have a very vocal young generation and they don’t just suffer in silence. They ask for explanations of what’s going on. They make us aware of how arbitrary our social rules are.

“On the one hand they are powerless, but on the other hand they clearly have the advantage over us in that they are clearly getting smarter every day and they have more energy and they heal faster.

“It makes for an interesting fictional relationship if put adults with children in same book. It’s never static.

“It is never interesting to write fiction about a situation that is black and white. If you have something to teach the world, blog about it, but you shouldn’t write fiction. Fiction is all about setting up situations and then showing them as they deconstruct themselves. It’s all about finding ethical, psychological complications.”

In Akin, young Michael is almost like a spirit guide.

“Modern children, because of the internet, they all have this weird surface familiarity. They have heard of everything but they don’t know anything substantially. They come across things first as a meme and then there is an explanation. It’s not like they study history and then see the meme.

“I’m always having to come at it sideways with them because they are laughing by the time you weigh in and say ‘Let me tell you what Hitler was really like’.”

The professor, Noah, believes he is there to save, govern and educate the child, Donoghue said. But, of course he’s being schooled just as much.

“Noah is sort of coming alive because of Michael. Noah doesn’t think he needs fixing. He thinks he’s fine but obviously pathetic about him but the whole rhythm of your day is different when there is a child around.

“It shakes you awake again.”

And he starts realizing that maybe he’s not the success he thought he was.

Noah’s life in France unknown to him. He is on his own journey of discovery.

The mystery of this novel lies in the secrets that exist between parents and children.

What did Noah’s mother actually do during the war? Was she a collaborator or a resistance fighter or something in between?

“Our parents are a bit of a mystery. And we don’t usually have a chance to ask all the questions before it is too late.”

Her parents generation (and mine) aren’t quite as open. They don’t tend to blab as much personal stuff.

“Mysteries remain. A lot of us find ourselves weighing our parents choices and realizing that things they put up with were very different from ours. There is always an element of mystery between the generations.”

The search for Noah’s mother was actually inspired, she said, by the daughter of a famous artists.

“It all began with Marguerite Matisse. I was reading a lot about artists who lived in Nice. One was Henri Matisse. I got interested in one detail in his biography. That was that his daughter was really a helpful, quiet, obedient studio assistant. Suddenly in her 40s, her marriage ended. She sent her child off to New York and she basically got involved in politics and the war without discussing it with her father.

“The war caused a change in the life of a domestic woman. Circumstances were such that they would bring out new traits in her. Maybe those things would never have bloomed without the war.”

So she created a fictional artist and his daughter. Then, she thought she needed somebody to publicize her story.

“That’s where Noah comes from. I invented Michael to complicate Noah’s journey. It ended up being just as much about Michael because I got drawn into why Michael needed to travel with his great-uncle.”

In the end she had parallel generational stories.

“Noah was a child in the war and Michael, the child of today is caught up in a modern social war, the American prison system, mass incarceration and the war on drugs.

“Michael is a poor white kid in America. He is older than you might expect because has had to toughen up after losing his parents. In other ways, he is very inexperienced because of the world.”

This one is set today but it’s haunted by the 1940s. And Donoghue is haunted too.

“You get all the facts you can and then you make up the story. I’m always left with this yearning feeling of ‘Did I get it right?’ I feel an ethical obligation to tell stories right.”

The story of the Holocaust in Vichy, France is a harsh one.

“In Vichy, you living under a French government that was busy rounding up Jews to send off to the camps. It’s morally dubious.”

In her research she found a “horrifying moment. The Nazis had asked for a quota of  Jews and the Vichy government said, ‘Take more. Let’s send the kids too. One of the Vichy politicians said separate the kids from their parents.”

That resonates today.

Donoghue said she inside herself to see if she would have the courage to resist.

“I found myself looking into my own heart: ‘No you’re not brave’.” I would have been one of those cowed, craven people peeking from behind the curtains.

What does she think people will take from the book?

“I don’t think people will take away a simple message. I think they will be left with a lingering sense of this old man and boy creating some kind of kinship. Ultimately, it is a celebration of family.”

Now that the novel is written she says she can go back to Nice and relax.

“It used to be every time I’d go there, I’d start photographing things and hoarding details. Now I can just eat the pastries.”

Ironically they left Nice for the last time two weeks before a terrorist drove a truck down the Promenade des Anglais on Bastille Day and killed 86 people.

“We would have gone to that fireworks display. When an act of terrorism has been on a place you know suddenly it’s real.”

Room has also been turned into a play and it will soon be at the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario and then in Toronto.

This production has music in it. There are songs that offer a glimpse into the mother’s head.

Donoghue is on board with that.

“The songs add to the power of it. The idea came from the director and you just have to be open to ideas of collaborators.”

In town: Akin is published by HarperCollins. Emma Donoghue will be at Southminster Church, 15 Aylmer Ave., on Sept. 26 at 7 p.m. Tickets: writersfestival.org

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.