All That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon

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All That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A very surprising choice for a debut novel from Ireland; an intelligent look at different Soviet-era lives that was clever, but did not compel as much as I would have liked.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: March 2014
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 9780670922703

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Moscow, 1986, and a nine-year old piano prodigy is trapped in a subway station by bullies, who carefully break one of his little fingers. Rehearsal cancelled, the boy finds his favourite aunt, who takes him to treatment only to discover her ex-husband the doctor involved. Many miles away a slightly older young man is off on his first hunting trip with the men of the village, only to find diseased cows, and the grouse they seek sickly and weirdly uncoordinated. What has affected them, and will of course affect all the characters in the book, is the nuclear disaster in the plant at Chernobyl.

I know what you think, to start with a finger-breaking and then proceed through a nuclear accident and come out the other side, this book must be interminably bleak. To some small extent it is, but much like the Russian/Soviet character it so expertly personifies, it has a stolid ability to carry on and succeed against all the odds. It does, however, make several peculiar turns along the way.

For a start it seems to suffer the sort of mild schizophrenia of a debut book. We're completely internalising the characters we meet before the disaster happens, and the rush of what counts for action in the light of that is at odds with the quieter, intimate details of the opening. We lurch back into the personal before other plot strands break out into set pieces and episodes based on Soviet society and politics, and again the balance may strike one as a little at odds. A lot of the time McKeon is in an urgent present tense, but can never relinquish the flash-back to catch up, or other similar descent into past tense.

What's most pertinent is the fact that despite the several characters, and the many times their plots do not coincide, irrespective of how many elements are in this lengthy book it feels at the end to be very quick to summarise. The reason for that must be one of the other factors you can easily see as one of the book's merits – this debut author really can transpose him and us into the minds of the people in the book. Everywhere a veracity comes across from the page, whether it's large and dramatic and nuclear or quiet, intimate and rarefied such as in a piano prodigy's mind. Every character is distinctly Russian, a quality the book itself seems to share – two metaphors regarding chess pieces, the routines of the people, the nature of family betrayals and the politics in and out of the workplace, all smack of correctness and never just plain research.

So the pages have a distinctive flavour of their own, even if the mood is never utterly optimistic and inspiring, despite the big-P political events about to happen to the characters and those people they know. The depth of characterisation is evidently the chief quality of the book, alongside the evocation from a long way away in space and time of the disaster itself. Pinned to that, however, are the characters, and their plots, and connections between them we both expect and find as surprises. If only, however, I was lucky enough to find more of a hook on to those separate stories, I might have relished the book more. It's an eye-opening debut, an intelligent, rich and richly detailed book, but for me lacked just some final sheen to make me have an emotion beyond grudging respect.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

Shelve near to Purge by Sofi Oksanen if only for geographical connections. For more literary sides to Russia, you should enjoy the self-explanatory Russian Stories by Francesc Seres - an anthology of short tales so quirky that even our reviewer didn't realise it was all from one hand.

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