The overwhelming word that comes to mind with Emma Donoghue’s Akin is ‘lukewarm,’ which as someone who tries to write down how I feel about the books I’ve read feels unsatisfying. Declare a position! But really, I could neither urge you to read or not read this one. It’s fine. If your book club picks it? Fine. If someone gifts it to you because it was on the bestseller table at the book store? Fine. If you pass over it at the used bookstore because there are seven copies and you’d rather take home [insert anything else] [except Girl on the Train] Fine.
I read it out of curiosity. I’d enjoyed Room and Akin was getting lots of hype and I’m nothing if not easily persuaded by best-of lists and recommendations. And Akin does have reasons for recommendations: (1) it’s a tight plot – taking place in a little over ten days, it follows octogenarian Noah as he must unexpectedly take over the care for his grand-nephew, Michael, and still journey to his birthplace of Nice to discover the truth about his mother (Noah does, I mean). The focused plot gives the novel a short story-esque feel, and a relative certainty early on for the reader on how things between Michael and Noah are going to turn out. (Cue every plot ever about a troubled teenager and an equally-troubled-but-pretending-to-have-it-all-sorted adult like every teacher-disturbed class movie ever). (2) Michael is a well done character, and the questions he asks and his reactions feel sensible and in line with what his character would say or do.
And then there’s the reasons you could pass this one by: (1) The aforementioned obviousness of the outcome of the Noah-Michael dynamic and the somewhat alarming way in which having children is roughly inserted towards the end of the novel as a prime Purpose for living – an insult to folks who don’t have kids and an unreasonable burden to place on children (2) The entire plot line of investigating the backstory of Noah’s mother reads as both impossibly far-fetched and like a poorly grafted limb onto the main body of the story. Every time the two of them set out to investigate another piece of her backstory I was surprised again to find that the novel seemed to think Noah’s mother and Nazi history was the point of the book or the thematic center. Not so, novel. Figure out what you’re about and be about that. (Curious minds want to know? Themes of judgement, justice and redemption).
Taken together I remain… lukewarm. Convince me otherwise? Or don’t. With this one I really don’t care.
BIG NEWS. First time ever, but I wrote this review and when I was typing in the ‘tags’ realized that I READ IT BEFORE. And REVIEWED IT BEFORE. And I had NO MEMORY AT ALL that I’d ever encountered the book before! AH! My brain! Anyway, When I read this (in 2011) I was ambivalent. Almost ten years later (let’s grant that the intervening decade may be why I don’t recall it At. All.?) I am less easily swayed. If you want to read the earlier review you can find it here. I will say that 2011 Erin was far more impressed by detail. And actually thought this was a book I’d ‘keep thinking about’ LOL.
And now… the review I wrote before I realized I’d reviewed it before!
It shouldn’t be so boring. What is Left the Daughter opens with a dramatic love triangle that renders protagonist Wyatt Hillier an orphan. It has the drama of U-boats and the war and murder! But then it also has tedious descriptions of scones and gramophone recordings and definitions of words.
Ostensibly told as a series of letters from father to daughter (though what letter would ever include Such Outrageous Detail I don’t know) the novel follows the life of Wyatt as he comes to Middle Economy, Nova Scotia, and becomes a… wait. Try to imagine the most boring job you can imagine. Did you guess toboggan and sled maker? You’re right – that falls outside the scope of imagination for most boring, but there it is, all true. He falls in love, but the woman of his affection loves another man. A *gasp* German man amid WWII Nova Scotia. Drama-drama, family-drama. Except… no real drama. Just agonizing mundane exhaustion.
So yeah. I would have stopped reading this one, but I kept thinking it was going to get better. It doesn’t. Don’t. Bother.
Lady spies! Double agents! Domestic espionage! Kate Atkinson’s Transcription is a little burst of historical fiction delight. Principally set in the opening months of the Second World War (with some delightful temporal jumps to the 1950s and 1980s to add layers of complexity and trickiness), it follows Juliette Armstrong as she enters MI5 as a secretary-turned-undercover-agent and then follows her journey through the early years of the war and her first (only? no spoilers) mission for M15.
The novel refuses the reader’s desire for espionage to be all-glamorous or all-action, and instead gives refinement to the role of the spy by spending time with the slow details of waiting, watching, listening, and the necessarily ‘domestic’ tasks of caring relationships among and between members of the service. In this space Atkinson does particularly well, as the writing of each character is rich and full, as well as peppered with humour and sensitivity. Readers expecting explosions or middle-of-the-night hostage-taking would best look elsewhere though, as the plot unfolds here at a much gentler pace, and the ‘climactic’ moment in Juliette’s mission is somewhat… anti-climactic.
What it does especially well is revel in the genre of historical fiction. Freely inventing, while staying true to the spirit of the historical moment. There’s much to be admired in the way Atkinson balances what we do know about Armstrong’s particular mission (or ones like it) and what is likely to be true, as well as what makes sense for exploring the complexities of gender and sexuality in that moment (as in ours).
I was a big fan of Atkinson’s other major WWII novel, Life After Life, and like that one, Transcription takes a bit of time to feel fully committed. That said, if you’re partial to the slower burn, the witty, and the brilliantly historical, then off you go. Read!
Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach is the sort of book you read while at work. Like tucked inside an important memo. (One of my memories of elementary school is our teacher discovering that Joseph had been hiding a novel behind his math textbook and the teacher went bananas and used a meter stick to hit the book across the room. Which with the benefit of age now seems an unmeasured response. I mean, I can see being annoyed if he had a porn mag tucked in there, but a novel? Oh well. I guess we must Be Respected at all times. I DIGRESS.)
It’s an excellent novel. Really. Go and get it now and start reading. Things I think make it excellent (in no particular order): Continue reading