Darragh McKeon’s All That is Solid Melts Into Air is simply one of the best novels I’ve read this year. Using the Chernobyl meltdown as a prism through which to view the collapsing Soviet society of the late 1980s, McKeon weaves an incisive and deeply humane tale of powerless people dealing with corruption and change to the best of their abilities.
Two story lines converge in the shadow of a shattered nuclear plant. Dr. Grigory Brovkin is a rare honorable man amid a society of widespread corruption. He still cares for his ex-wife, Maria, a former-journalist now working a dull job in a factory. Maria wrote some articles in underground newspapers, and although supposedly anonymous, she lost her job and was forced into a divorce in order to protect Grigory’s career. While Grigory is whisked off to Chernobyl to treat the dying, Maria remains in Moscow, dealing with her precarious legal limbo.
Near Chernobyl, Artyom, the young son of local farmers, watches as cows sicken and die overnight. Troops come and evacuate entire villages. His father resists, and disappears. In the settlement camp, Artyom and Grigory’s paths cross as the doctor works to save as many as possible, and incurs political isolation as he tries to convey the severity of the situation to those in authority. As can be expected in a culture where the “Emergency Protocols” section of a nuclear facility’s operations manual was left blank because to imagine such an emergency was in itself an act of disloyalty, the authorities wish to act as if everything is under control, leaving Grigory more and more frustrated.
Back in Moscow, Maria reenters the world of political dissent by arranging a concert to coincide with a workers occupation of their factory and the kidnapping a party official. The concert is to feature her nephew, Yevgeni, a piano prodigy, but she is wracked with guilt at the risk of putting his future in jeopardy. As she begins to get hints of what has happened to Grigory, she is increasingly drawn away from politics and back to him.
Through these different people, we see the tensions between personal life and political expediency that marked the Soviet republics under communism. The novel focuses on these difficult inter-personal relationships rather than questions of ideology, and is the stronger for it. Although written by an Irishman, All That is Solid Melts into Air is informed by the great Russian novels that convey history through individual lives.
Western readers will certainty relate to Grigory, trying to use his medical training to help others despite political denials that there is any problem, while Irish readers will ruefully smile in recognition of the “who-you-know” culture, the pressures of keeping on the right side of the local “big men,” and the casual attitude to violence. It would be stretching things to declare the parallels between Soviet and Irish society at the time were very close, but they weren’t as far apart as we’d like to think either. On the positive side, we Irish have a long history of getting involved in overseas charity work, so the novel can be read in the context of our charitable impulses abroad, and conformist conservatism at home.
It’s not really surprising that an Irish writer of McKeon’s generation would be drawn to the Chernobyl story. As a child, McKeon saw children from the surrounding region come to Ireland for medical treatment and holidays, and the Berlin Wall fell as he was coming of age, so those events clearly made a vivid impression. While academics have written extensively about the political forces and personalities who shaped those times, McKeon displays great empathy and imagination in telling the human story of everyday people caught up in great turmoil so convincingly, and in doing so he’s combined the literary traditions of the Russian novel with the charitable impulses and missionary zeal of Irish humanism to create a beautifully written, poetic, and deeply affecting novel.
Order the UK edition of Darragh McKeon’s All That is Solid Melts into Air…
Find out more about the Chernobyl Children’s Trust, an Irish charity helping sick children and orphans in disadvantaged areas of Belarus…