Emma Donoghue explores family, moral ambiguities of war in ‘Akin’

TORONTO — Despite reaching a rare level of critical and commercial success, author Emma Donoghue makes no assumption that all readers are fully engrossed by her prose.

The Irish-Canadian writer behind “Room” says she approaches each new project mindful that modern life threatens to distract most busy readers, guessing those who pick up her books might be perusing them ”for 10 minutes on the bus and then 10 minutes before bed.”

“I always try to not be too difficult to follow because I think if you write in too difficult a way, you’re basically assuming in a lordly way that your readers will be absolutely at your disposal and concentrating and have a pencil in hand,” Donoghue says from her home in London, Ont., as she prepares to release her next novel, “Akin.”

“I know I’m trying to compete for their attention with the passing traffic and with Netflix and so on. I need to woo them into this world. But I never assume that they’re reading in long chunks.”

With “Akin,” Donoghue offers up a twist-laden mystery in which a retired New York chemistry professor returns to Nice for the first time since he was a child to parse out what role his Catholic mother played during the Nazi occupation of France decades earlier.

Complicating matters is Noah’s 11-year-old great nephew Michael, whose own family woes result in him tagging along at the last minute, threatening to derail Noah’s grand plans for his 80th-birthday sojourn.

The premise opens the door to odd-couple comedy as a child of YouTube and selfies clashes with a crusty widower who never had children, but Michael’s tech savvy and blunt questions soon prove key to unlocking the truth about both of their histories.

Throughout, Donoghue offers up her multi-layered ruminations on the familial ties that bind, and the influence each generation exerts on the next, for better or worse.

About to turn 50, Donoghue admits that legacy has been on her mind.

“My mom’s died and my dad’s still around but whenever your parents are in that older time slot you do think a lot about what a life adds up to and what you yourself want to leave behind,” says Donoghue, whose incredibly detailed city descriptions were informed by extensive notes, photos and video she took during several trips to Nice.

The idea began with Donoghue’s interest in Marguerite Matisse Duthuit, daughter of the painter Henri Matisse, and Hilary Spurling’s account of her resistance efforts in the biography, “Matisse the Master.”

Donoghue says she was very interested in the “moral ambiguities of the war and the way people sort of fictionalize their past.”

“After the war, a lot of people lined up for medals as resistance members — far more than had been actually involved — and that fit in with my interest in trying to understand your parents, or previous generations. Often by the time these questions occur to you, they’re either dead or have dementia…. There’s always an element of filling in the gaps with your imagination,” she says.

And while little reminders to the Second World War are “everywhere” in France by way of memorial plaques, she says “France is not always very honest about its role in the war.”

“It always emphasizes: ‘Evil Nazis did something evil on this spot,’ but (France) doesn’t have little plaques up saying, ‘Catholics let their Jewish neighbours be dragged off on this spot,’” says Donoghue, suggesting the role non-Jewish people played in the war gets little scrutiny.

“Whether you ran off and told the Nazis that your neighbour was Jewish or whether you did nothing or whether you helped, you had to take a position either way.”

Of course, it’s hard to ignore that the fascist, hate-filled ideas that ignited the war are very much alive today around the globe. Donoghue says the same moral pressures persist.

“I never write historical fiction in order to comment on now but you can’t really talk about the past without also touching on the present. The echoes are obvious,” says Donoghue.

“So many of the issues that I was looking at in writing this book have never gone away.”

“Akin” hits bookstores Tuesday.

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