Thursday 18 January 2018

Book review: Lives lived in the shadow of Chernobyl

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Darragh McKeon, Penguin/Viking, £14.99

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air
All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

Barbara Clinton

Nearly three decades on, Chernobyl remains a byword for disaster and a somewhat larger than life character for many of us. The children who suffered in the meltdown that made it infamous are still our familiars. However, for the acres of newsprint and newsreel that passed before our eyes in the aftermath of the nuclear meltdown, most of us know little or nothing of the thousands of other lives that were shaped and reshaped by that place and story. Darragh McKeon's debut novel All That Is Solid Melts Into Air does not so much attempt to provide that backdrop for Chernobyl as use the Chernobyl tragedy itself as the prop in the telling of this story.

Here in the hinterland of everyday life, caught in the ripples of the Chernobyl tragedy that reach across borders to Minsk and Moscow, an aunt refuses shelter to her sister's contaminated refugee family, while a successful surgeon achieves his own sort of refugee status in being sent to work at the contaminated site.

By turns a coming of age and love story, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air tells the universal story of human endeavour and the struggle to survive. For all its location in time, place and history, away from the shadow of the nuclear plant and the soviet watchers, schoolboys are bullied, as they are everywhere; mothers worry and hope in equal measure; lovers fall together and apart; ends are made to meet and broken motorbikes are still the stuff of dreams.

And so, character names become signposts in a universal domesticity. We are transported from the general to the particular place of the talented boy by his name: Yevgeni; Grigory could be any surgeon but of course he is not; and so it goes. In some ways the message of this book is that even the most uniquely extraordinary stories are those of very ordinary lives.

McKeon was about seven-years-old and living in rural Ireland at the time of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion. While he does not, principally, concern himself with what happened inside the power plant on April 26, 1986, he manages to recreate the appalling reality of those events with a detached and shocking description that is as vivid as any eyewitness account.

He has, rightly, earned much praise for this debut novel, which sweeps with epic confidence across lives that were directly and indirectly altered forever by this disaster. We leave them in November 1986 with all the uncertainty that accompanies survival – of what had gone before and what has yet to come – and rejoin them in April 2011, for the final 50 pages, and 25 years later. On a kind-of-rollercoaster catch-up, we learn the outcome for Maria and Grigory; for Yevgeni and his mother, Alina; and for many other characters and events besides.

A prologue told us very succinctly at the outset some of what we should expect and it is difficult not to wonder whether an epilogue would have served the purpose just as well for the ending.

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