When Darragh McKeon began to write his debut novel, set in the dying days of the Soviet Union, he could hardly have imagined that by the time it was published the relationship between Russia and Ukraine would have exploded as catastrophically as it has in recent weeks.
All That Is Solid Melts Into Air recreates another real-world explosion: the one which destroyed the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in April 1986. The author, who grew up in Tullamore, says the book was partly inspired by the presence in the Irish midlands, during his childhood, of children who had been brought for recuperative holidays by Chernobyl Children International.
Two children from very different backgrounds play central roles in the story. The opening scene finds Yevgeni, a nine-year-old piano prodigy, being tormented by two older kids in Moscow metro station. When they break his finger, his aunt Maria brings the boy to hospital to be treated by her ex-husband, the rising young surgeon Grigory Brovkin.
Meanwhile, on a remote farm in Belarus, 13-year-old Artyom wakes before dawn, excited about going on his first grouse shoot with his father, only to realise that there is something wrong with the sky. "A blend of mauves and yellows, ruby-rich colours that, upon the moment of his awakening, make him wonder if he has overslept …"
The sickly colours are harbingers of the cataclysm to come. McKeon’s description of the explosion is a showstopper, superimposing the Technicolor clarity of hindsight on the blurry-black-and-white of what was known – or, rather, not known – at the time.
But the novel’s interest is not primarily in documentary-style detail. Again and again McKeon imagines the impact of the blast on the lives of individuals. The Chernobyl operators, who riffle through their manuals in search of instructions for what to do in the event of a meltdown – only to find that the relevant passages have been blacked out, since a meltdown simply cannot be allowed to happen. The citizens of nearby Pripyat, who learn of the disaster when evacuation notices on pastel-coloured paper are dropped “like giant confetti” on their heads.
And Grigory who, despatched from Moscow to help with the clean-up, comes face to face with the incompetence of his political and military superiors. At the first emergency meeting he attends, there is no sense of urgency: instead it’s all “back-slapping, clasped handshakes, introductions according to who attended what party, where one’s dacha is located, their children’s choice of university”.
McKeon's individuals are atomic particles adrift in a vast universe. Tiny, glancing encounters are tenderly portrayed: Maria meeting the ageing concierge of the building where she once lived with Grigory; Yevgeni practising the piano silently, to avoid disturbing the neighbours; Artyom caring for an injured dog amid the devastation of Chernobyl. The entire novel is a meditation on the lines from Marx's Communist Manifesto which are quoted in the epigraph: "All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind".
As with vast universes, the challenge for McKeon is to keep his material from spinning off into space. The influence of Colum McCann – whose novel about Rudolf Nureyev, Dancer , was another pillar of inspiration for McKeon – can be seen in the technique of devoting successive chapters to particular characters, then gradually tightening the connections between them. It's not McKeon's fault that this approach is now so popular with contemporary novelists that it has become somewhat wearisome for the reader. On the other hand, a more experienced novelist might have been inclined to leave something out rather than try to bind it all in.
By contrast, McKeon's stylistic nods to the Russian writer Andrei Makine – his dreamy prologue, for instance, and his fondness for poetic description – struck this reader as seminal to the book's success. It is an astonishing debut. It is a page-turner. But above all, at a time when the "developed" world appears to be seriously considering a reboot of nuclear power, it reminds us just how explosive – not for us, but for our children and grandchildren – that option could turn out to be.