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The night has twelve hours
on 15 July 2014
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.