Review: Solace, By Belinda McKeon
Love and duty collide to fine effect in this debut novel by the Irish journalist
Solace is a love story, but at its core this debut novel explores ties and tensions between parents and offspring – love and duty towards ageing parents; attempts to mould children into shapes they resist. The prologue sets the scene. Tom is a farmer. His son, Mark, is staying to help with baling before returning to Dublin. The father-son relationship is baked dry as drought-ridden land. Tom sees Mark as sullen and pugnacious. Mark resents his father, but his suppressed rage has deeper causes.
Belinda McKeon rewinds to Mark as a PhD student with writer's block in Dublin. He meets Joanne, who grew up near him, a woman whose father Tom loathed. Fraught parent-child relationships echo through the book. The fallibility of both sides, to differing degrees, is clear in each case. Third-person narration flits between viewpoints.
McKeon is sharp on casual banter and social embarrassments. She is also astute on the parochialism of small communities and she captures the soul of Tom, an old-fashioned working man who loves his family but expects them to obey. The irritation Mark feels towards his father is clearly portrayed, as well as his own selfishness and indolence. He is supercilious towards rural folk, sneeringly observing incorrect usages and malapropisms. McKeon elegantly conveys that humans are flawed, and rarely "right" or "wrong". She also evokes the trials and delights of babies: exhausting parenthood is not new in literature, but it adds to the authenticity.
The prologue is arresting for its terse precision and stark tension, but McKeon's prose elsewhere is less powerful. McKeon would do well to take a lesson from William Trevor and Colm Toibin, that less may be more; trivial details dilute the power. Mark makes weak jokes about masturbation twice (to laughter); the couple wring hilarity from a comment about sushi. Spoken quips written down are drained of spontaneity.
Occasionally, the language would work in speech but not writing – a party's mood is "positively phosphorescent". Mark's thoughts about parties (best places to meet girls) are not original, unless we're meant to think he's leaden and slow (we're not). Sometimes, it feels as if there are two novels here – a quiet, reflective, perspicacious one about mutual pain and duty and a lesser, relationship-based beach read. Yet McKeon's juxtaposition of modern and traditional lives in conflict skilfully paints the invisible umbilical cord binding parent and child
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