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All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is a fictionalisation of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and its impact on a group of families who were connected or become connected. It is a complex work relying on multiple points of view and different strands that connect the narratives. But, incredibly, it works. The complexity never confuses; Darragh McKeon keeps all the balls in the air, never colliding.

This is fiction. The reader has to keep remembering that, because the level of detail gives an authenticity and authority of a work of factual documentary. We don’t know for sure how people responded when the reactor exploded; we can’t know what steps were taken to cover things up; or whether the human scale of the clean-up was as McKeon suggests. His narrative is, though, very plausible.

The novel captures not only the nuclear disaster, but also evokes the stagnation of a collapsing empire. These days, it is easy to forget just what a closed, controlling society the USSR had been. In 1986, most of the population remembered the days of Brezhnev; many would have remembered Stalin and the fear of an all-seeing secret police and a state that was intolerant of individual political expression. This is depicted in the lives of Grigory, an ambitious doctor, and Maria, his estranged wife who had worked as a journalist before being banished to a life of drudgery on the factory floor. At the same time, the USSR had been in economic stagnation for many years and had just seen the death of three leaders in three years. They didn’t know it at the time, but the Soviet Union would be dead in five years’ time. In the novel, people were openly telling jokes at General Secretary Gorbachev’s expense and the men from the ministry were obviously powerless to control the aftermath of Chernobyl.

McKeon uses Maria’s nephew, a weedy piano prodigy called Yevgeny, to represent the future. Yevgeny understands the rules of the playground bullies and adheres to them just enough to minimise the damage he will inevitably suffer. But he opts not to play within the system he is given. He has to decide whether to follow the route his mother and aunt have mapped for him or whether to seize his own destiny, by fair means or foul.

There is heartbreak as we see the personal cost of the nuclear tragedy. The man trying to save the door on which his children’s heights have been marked, on which he laid out his parents and grandparents to wake. The families broken apart. The joy and pain of reuniting with lost loved ones only to watch them die of radiation sickness. And this is all set against the turmoil of the changing state; old certainties being broken; plots and dreams being smashed as years of incremental positioning are swept aside in the tidal wave of change.

All That Is Solid is astonishingly well told; creating a perfect blend of the universal and the immensely personal. The final, short section is very different and quite unexpected. But it does tie the past and the present together.

This is a breathtaking first novel and if there is any justice, it will win prizes.
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on 20 March 2014
I read this book having heard McKeon giving an interview recently about writing the the debut novel. The fascinating story gives an original insight into how peoples lives were so affected by the nuclear disaster, against the backdrop of the fall of the Soviet Union. The book brought home for me the devastation caused by Chernobyl and how it impacted so many lives. It was well researched, with believable and captivating characters. The amount of information and deep insight into life in the Soviet Union at the time of the nuclear meltdown is remarkable given that McKeon only visited the region in the final stages of writing the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the mix of fact and fiction which were blended beautifully to make it an incredibly interesting, wonderfully written and original read. Would highly recommend it.
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This is a novel of two halves - not literally in the structural sense, but in the sense of having two fairly separate storylines. Unfortunately, this duality is a weakness in what is a very well written book and one that could certainly have been great if differently balanced. One of the storylines is very strong and compelling, whilst the other is also decently written - and as a stand alone story would have been fine - but suffers in comparison. There could have been two novels here, one very good and one outstanding. By combining them into one, you are left feeling you've been slightly cheated of the two potentially brilliant books you could have had.

The strong storyline is set around the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Two sets of characters are involved; a farming family who live in the shadow of the doomed reactor, and a brilliant surgeon who is flown in from Moscow to manage the medical response to the tragedy. Between these two perspectives, we see the accident and its aftermath unwind with painful clarity. Of course, I was aware of the incident and some of its horrible consequences, but I hadn't been aware of the way the authorities worsened the situation through denial and lack of preparedness. It's not surprising that this story is compelling and you want to keep reading it.

But you can't keep reading it, because it's stuck between long interludes focussing on the doctor's ex-wife, her sister, and her talented nephew. This story is well written and provides a portrait of the frustrations of life in the USSR, and eventually does come to a compelling conclusion. But it doesn't link enough with the Chernobyl storyline, and just seems to get in the way. On its own, with a bit more related material, it could have been a strong novella offering insight into ordinary people living under Soviet communism. But mixed with the compelling Chernobyl story I found it dull and resented it. Meanwhile the Chernobyl story could have had so much more there - there's heaps of story worthy material in that disaster, and it's a story that should be told. The time feels right, nearly thirty years afterwards, to understand better through literature - and remember that people are still living with the aftereffects today. It could have been an 'Animal's People' for Chernobyl (the other an excellent novel by Indra Sinha based on the Bhopal disaster).

The writing style is elegant and wordy without being pretentious, and the characters are well drawn - although I felt there was far too much about the two sisters, whom I found annoying. The descriptions are good and the dialogue rings true. The Chernobyl parts are very compelling, and the Moscow sections of the story become so towards the end. There's no doubt that McKeon is a good writer and I'd read another book by him. All in all, I would still recommend the book as it is well written and I think readers will find it interesting, especially if you have an interest in world affairs. It
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on 16 August 2014
"Daring, ambitious, epic, moving' says Colm Toibin on the front of this novel. For reasons other reviews have made clear it is certainly daring, ambitious and epic; the problem is it isn't very moving.

Some of the writing is so overblown it is enough to make you wince ("...she will no longer be just another shadowed form in this city built on whispers."), the characters are stereotypes (the child piano prodigy, the downtrodden factory worker, the maverick surgeon fighting against the system) and consequently the dialogue often sounds like it was originally meant for a CIA propaganda film.

This book tries too hard and ends up shouting so loudly that you start to doubt that it has anything to say at all. A 'Daring, ambitious, epic' idea has been turned into a largely unmoving book.
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on 8 July 2014
The novel is set in 1986 in the Soviet Union. The "system" is crumbling. Something then goes badly wrong at a nuclear reactor in the Ukraine. The story has something of a "disaster movie" feel, retailing the fall-out [quite literally] on a small but diverse group of people. A short epilogue reveals the sequelae for some of them after the USSR crashed.

Some of the writing is wonderful - the pages describing the explosion itself have poetic power, an utterly convincing chapter describes the hasty yet belated evacuation of the population of Pripyat. Other sections are unconvincing - a description of cardiac surgery comes straight from a medical textbook.

Characterisations are also patchy. The boys - Artyom and Yevgeni - stand out, absolutely plausible and winning. The "hero", the doctor Grigori, less so. He borrows traits from Ayn Rand's Adam Roark  and Jack Schaeffer's Shane, but generally bears the imprint of television medics.

The plot is less than sure-footed. Some strands simply fall loose from the weave, and the overall pattern is lost. There is no real climax to anyone's tale.

The impact of Chernobyl, immediate and long-term, is controversial. Darragh McKeon adopts the worse-case scenario position, but this is not held universally. Wikipedia covers this and there are numerous references there. Fukushima has shown that modern capitalist states also struggle with the power of the atom.

The politics were a bit clunky, a bit too heavy. Grigori - "they need to take a hose to the whole Union [SSR]..Fire those in power. Promote talent. Listen to ideas. They need to do these things but never will. The system will never allow it." All the sources are in English, and I am assuming that the author does not speak Russian. This is not Doctor Zhivago.

Utlimately, despite its many strengths, I was left a little disappointed - a strong solid beginning melted into air.
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on 24 March 2014
This is a wonderfully well written novel - which was an expansive read for me. Though the context is heavy going, I found it a really compelling and 'must finish quick' read - I was very drawn to the array of characters and I found the whole setting of Chernoybl absolutely fascinating to immerse myself in - quite terrifying at times - and got a uniquely new perspective on the Chernobyl disaster and the ongoing tragedy of its impact. However it is not a history lesson and doesn't try to be - and its focus on telling the stories of some beautifully drawn characters who are regular, ordinary survivors.
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on 1 April 2014
Set in the infamous backdrop of the Chernobyl catastrophe, this book is a profoundly touching read. McKeon tells the story of the catastrophe from several different perspectives, which means that we experience facets of this environmental, political and social disaster as if encountering it anew. We are also reminded, as its narrative shifts back and forward through time, that the nuclear threats of this major event are ongoing and not only in the Ukraine.

McKeon has a sharp eye for detail from the hues of the landscapes that have been touched, to the daily routines, habits and gestures of the people it has displaced and so we build up an intimate relationship with the protagonists. As the narrative strands are brought together, culminating in several incredibly resonant scenes, a distinctive tempo emerges. I recommend this book to readers with historical interest but also to readers who enjoy good prose.
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This is one of those books that I think that I ought to like because it deals with a recent painful episode and carries lessons for the future.

However, I have to admit for all the worthy sentiments the book is monumentally dull. In what sense it “forges new territory for the contemporary novel” I fail to see. Yes, the subject matter may be new but in every other respect there is little here that is original or innovative.

The writer’s attempt to bring into common focus the public disaster and the private life of the central character seems to me to fail. The subject matter has great potential but I don’t think that that potential is realised here. The style is awkward and at its worst wooden. I’m afraid that sadly for me it is far from moving.
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on 14 March 2014
Wow. This is a brilliantly crafted portrayal of the impact on human relationships and society in the face of epic catastrophe. With believable characters, well-researched context and haunting imagery, McKeon conveys the pain and oppression of unfolding events. This is not a happy book but nor is it miserable. McKeon seems to know the moments when his readers need pulling away from the distress and there are gestures of basic human kindness that took my breath away. He gives a glimmering suggestion that even in times of disaster there is still hope and the chance of something better.
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on 12 June 2015
My rating: 3.5

I received this book for free through Goodreads First Reads.

All That is Solid Melts into Air (the title taken from a Karl Marx quote) is the debut novel from Irish author Darragh McKeon. Set mostly in 1986, it follows the lives of several people in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster.

On reading the blurb I thought that the plot would be solely focused on the Chernobyl disaster however this was not the case. In fact it is difficult to pick out what the actual plot line was. Each character has individual storylines, some of which connect up, but the disaster is not completely the entire focus of the novel.

Beginning in April 1986 we read about Yevgeni, a nine-year-old piano prodigy and his life in Soviet Russia. We also discover his aunt, Maria, who, although through third person narrative, describes her life, thoughts and difficulties at this period of time. The person who appeared to be the main character for the majority of the narrative was Grigory Ivanovich Brovkin, a surgeon who so happens to be Maria’s ex-husband that gets sent out to Ukraine to assist with the clean up after the Chernobyl incident. In Ukraine lives Artyom, a thirteen-year-old boy who is forced to evacuate his home to get away from the radiation. Here, while not until November 1986, Grigory and Artyom’s storylines merge together.

The novel ends in April 2011, but by this point Artyom’s story has fizzled out, his sole purpose being to show the reader what life was like for the evacuees: shockingly terrible.

As I have said, there was not really a main plotline, however the book gives a good account of what happened and how things were dealt with after. That is, of course, if it is historically accurate. Despite studying the Soviet Union at school, my knowledge of the Chernobyl disaster was virtually non-existent. There is also a hint of romance regarding Grigory and Maria.

Overall it was incredibly well written, full of description and very interesting.
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