Thursday 27 July 2017

Review: Solace by Belinda McKeon

Picador, €14.99

IN CONTROL: Belinda McKeon is a warm, empathetic writer who gets inside her characters'
heads with an understanding that is never trite, never careless and never inconsequential
IN CONTROL: Belinda McKeon is a warm, empathetic writer who gets inside her characters' heads with an understanding that is never trite, never careless and never inconsequential

Claire Coughlan

Belinda McKeon's debut novel has already been extravagantly praised in advance, with Colm Toibin declaring that Solace will be "a much-loved and treasured book by readers everywhere", while the book's publisher Paul Baggaley has described it as "the most accomplished and perfectly achieved debut novel I have come across in many years".





These are high stakes for a first-time author. However, in this instance, the hype certainly doesn't overshadow McKeon's ambition and accomplishment, which has been to produce a gorgeously written love story; an understated tale of duty, loss and hope and an accurate reflection of where we are in Irish society, post-boom.

Contemporary fiction doesn't give rural Ireland much of a look-in these days. In Solace, McKeon deftly explores the relationship between a father and son, Tom and Mark Casey. The former is a farmer in Longford, resistant to change, set in his ways. Mark is pursuing a PhD at Trinity College in the novels of Maria Edgeworth, whose family's former ascendancy estate now houses a hospital where Mark's mother used to work as a nurse. Tom, however, doesn't see why Mark can't be at home more, helping out on the farm and doing his filial duty.

Mark meets Joanne, a trainee solicitor in Dublin, and an intense love affair ensues, resulting in generational conflict between Mark and his father, the result of an old feud. When tragedy strikes, the two men are thrown together once more, in the old family home, and each must learn to adapt and accept each other as individuals, as well as for what each generation represents.

The solace of the title filters through the novel: Mark finds solace in his relationship with Joanne, in their daughter and later in his return to Longford, his home place.

McKeon takes the nature of the concept of "home" and pushes its boundaries, probing into where and why, when and who. The characterisation is flawless; even minor characters visibly breathe on the page. The dialogue, particularly the exchanges between Mark and his father, are spot on in cadence and nuance and are, at times, both funny and achingly sad.

The divide between rural Ireland and its urban counterpart are well delineated; the demarcation between the traditional and the contemporary. However, McKeon doesn't draw any easy conclusions about progress and change -- she never implies that Mark's life is somehow better than his father's because he moved to Dublin and got away from the farm. Life is cruel regardless, as Mark finds out, and besides, McKeon is far too subtle a writer for that.

Although much of the writing is spare and compact, packing a huge, emotionally powerful punch, the everyday goings-on of life on a farm are evocatively colourful in detail: saving the hay, the turns in the weather, caring for the animals. Life, and all that it entails, goes on regardless, in the wake of grief and loss, McKeon seems to say.

She is a warm, empathetic writer who gets inside her characters' heads with an understanding that is never trite, never careless, and never inconsequential.

Solace should become, as Toibin predicted, "much-loved" by readers -- if they have any taste, that is. It will certainly be treasured by those who enjoy a good story, well told, who like their characters to be whole and believable and who want to get swept away by the power of great writing. This is an astonishingly impressive debut from an author in complete control of her considerable talents. A new literary star has most definitely emerged.

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