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All That Is Solid Melts Into Air by Darragh McKeon – Book Review by Helen O’Leary
There are several things that particularly appeal about this debut novel that is set in April 1986 in the lead up to the Chernobyl reactor meltdown Firstly the main characters are slowly introduced and developed before the author describes the nuclear accident. The novel intertwines enough story threads to add interest and complexity but not too many threads to confuse. Lastly McKeon recreates the grim atmosphere that pervaded behind the Iron Curtain without overwhelming the reader with historical and political facts.
One of the main characters is Grigory, a surgeon who is sent to the Chernobyl in the days after the reactor explosion. He is appalled by the official response to the disaster, which is blundering and inept. Astonishingly the principal concern of authorities is to cover up the catastrophe. They are terrified the world will learn of the their country’s nuclear blunder. The terrible effects of the radiation poisoning on its people and the countryside are a lesser concern. The fact that there is only one small box of iodine tablets in stock in the city closest to the reactor gives some indication of the lack of planning.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident those living in the shadow of the power plant are blithely unaware of the poison seeping into their skin, food and water. There is disbelief that this strange, invisible and deadly enemy called radiation actually exists. Initially the ordinary people are kept in ignorance as long as possible and evacuated from their homes without explanation. A thirteen-year-old boy voices the growing unease when he says “Something bad is happening” .
It takes months for the full horror of the seeping radiation to manifest itself in aggressive cancers, tumours, and babies born with horrific deformities. Grigory works tirelessly in a makeshift health clinic and all the while the reader is conscious that he is exposing himself to the radiation. Grigory is incensed at the ineffective response of the government but his outrage only has one result; he is shunned by colleagues and banished to work alone in the evacuee camp.
The setting of the novel moves between Chernobyl and Moscow where another plot unfolds. Grigory’s estranged wife Maria lives in the capital with her widowed sister Alina and her nephew Yevgeni. Their life in Moscow is a window into the oppressive communist regime. There are undercurrents of fear and suspicion, voice any derision of the authorities and you are labelled a traitor.
Maria was a successful journalist but her career ended as a consequence of criticizing the regime. Now she works monotonous hours in a factory where she is involved with workers plotting a revolt. Marie’s young nephew Yevgeni, a musical prodigy is unwillingly drawn into these plans .
This novel was written over several years. There is a feeling that over this time McKeon has collected many descriptions and observations that he has poured into this book, for example how he describes the agreeable noise made by rain falling on an iron roof when you are safe and dry underneath. These small additions give the novel a depth and richness.