In the shadow of the Second World War: Akin (Emma Donoghue) & The Tenth Muse (Catherine Chung)

On the whole, I’m a bit tired of books that explore family secrets during the Second World War, but both of these new releases manage to twist this trope in interesting ways, wringing more out of it than I thought was possible.

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Emma Donoghue’s Akin sounded initially unpromising but was unexpectedly delightful. It focuses on retired chemist Noah Selvaggio, who is returning to the French Riviera, where he spent his early childhood, on the eve of his eightieth birthday. Noah lost his wife some years back, and is happy to admit that, of the two of them, she was the one whose work really contributed to the sum of human knowledge, as she was a leading cancer researcher. The couple were contentedly childless, and so Noah is now winding down his own life in a predictable fashion, unsure what it has all meant but happy in the recognition of the privilege it contained. This is all upended when Noah becomes the temporary guardian of Michael, his eleven-year-old great-nephew (“Mr Selvaggio is your great-uncle”… “What’s so great about him?” Michael wanted to know.) Told that if he does not assume responsibility for Michael he will have to be put in foster care, Noah reluctantly takes the boy with him to France.

Akin isn’t a plotty book; how much you like it will probably be dependent on how much you enjoy this kind of dialogue, which makes up the bulk of the novel:

During the Occupation – when the German army took over from the Italians – you had to tape black over every window so American bombers wouldn’t spot any lights. And there was a curfew, which meant everybody had to stay indoors after dark.” [Noah said].

 “I know what a freaking curfew is.” [Michael said]

“Of course you do.” Home by four thirty every day.

“Mom and Grandma were all about the curfew,” Michael said.

 “Yeah?”

 “You come straight home from school now” – in a gravelly old-lady voice – “and stay inside, live to be a man. Hanging around on the corner, you’re going to end up getting yourself shot like Cody.”

 The well-observed repartee between Noah and Michael has several reoccurring themes; Noah shocked by the reality of Michael’s turbulent childhood, and unsure where to draw boundaries with his charge; Noah trying to pass on his knowledge of the world to Michael, while constantly being surprised by what the boy does or doesn’t know, what happens to interest him, and what to protect him from. “You know a lot of stuff, but most of it’s sick,” Michael tells him. “Fair comment,” Noah replies.

The warmth which which Donoghue writes about both her characters offsets the hint of cliché in Michael’s characterisation (just because a portrayal is realistic doesn’t mean it can’t also be cliched). These long conversations also have a thematic purpose; Akin explores what we can pass on to the next generation, and what it’s worth. In this context, when Noah starts researching his family’s past during the Nazi occupation of France, this familiar plot feels fresher, especially as it’s juxtaposed with another miscarriage of justice that has been visited on Michael’s parents. Once again, Donoghue pulls something totally different out of the bag; I’ve read her on countercultural contemporary lesbian relationships (Stir-Fry, Hood) a pulpy nineteenth-century courtroom drama (The Sealed Letter) and the mysterious case of an Irish girl said to have survived without food for months in 1859 (The Wonder), as well as her most famous novel, Room, which is totally distinctive again. All were worthwhile, and although Akin can be a little slow at times, I’d rank it as among her best.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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As a female Chinese-American mathematician in the post-war United States, Katherine knows that her path ahead won’t be easy, and that she will never be viewed on her own merits: ‘When I die, I know the first sentence in my obituary will read, “Asian American woman mathematician dies at the age of X”. Nevertheless, she refuses to compromise her principles for the sake of her career or her personal life. The central problem that will haunt her forever is framed early on in this novel; when still an undergraduate student, her professor confronts her, claiming she has copied her problem sets from her male friend. Of course, it’s the friend who is the plagiarist, but he refuses to tell the truth, and Katherine feels that the only way to prove her own merits is to work ten times harder. Later, when she begins a relationship with a well-known mathematician and they publish papers together, everyone refers to him as the sole author, and assumes she was only named on the papers because she’s sleeping with him. However, these early unjust incidents are only the preamble for two further events that mean Katherine must choose between the people she loves and the work that inspires her.

The title of Catherine Chung’s novel, The Tenth Muse, also refers back to this central dilemma. As she tells her story, Katherine repeatedly remembers two tales she first encountered as a young child; as she summarises them, ‘The tenth muse gave up everything to claim her own voice. Kwan-Yin gave up everything on behalf of everyone else.’ Katherine wants to believe there’s a middle way between these two poles, but her experiences constantly force her into difficult choices. Chung’s take on the damaging sacrifices we make for those we love is refreshing, and I admired the portrayal of a female protagonist who isn’t willing to always be the Kwan-Yin. She also interweaves the complicated story of Katherine’s heritage, which, like Noah’s, is rooted in the Second World War, carefully through the main plot. However, The Tenth Muse was a little too neat for me. Its message is spelt out several times. It’s very light on the mathematics it describes, which in one way was a relief, as I doubt I would have understood anything more complex, but this also means there’s little to make it stand out. Katherine is a compelling narrator, but her story remains a sketch.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

10 thoughts on “In the shadow of the Second World War: Akin (Emma Donoghue) & The Tenth Muse (Catherine Chung)

  1. Novels that make sure the protagonist’s job is super-specialized and interesting but never really delve into the details of the job frustrate me so profoundly! Why make someone a mathematician unless you want/like to write about maths?!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, exactly – I know that maths is a bit of a tricky one in this regard, given most people’s poor understanding of mathematical concepts (me included!) but there’s some really clever use of an allegory early in the book, and I’d have liked to see more of that. I guess I was anticipating something more like Manjit Kumar’s Quantum, but I suppose that’s about theoretical physics rather than pure maths, which is potentially more accessible to the layperson ??

      Like

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