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Review: Fiction: Solace by Belinda McKeon

Irish journalist and award-winning playwright Belinda McKeon's debut novel, Solace, tells the story of Mark Casey, a 30-year-old doctoral student from Longford living in Dublin and studying in Trinity College.

The only son of Tom and Maura, Mark's obligations to the family farm cause him guilt and frustration as he tries to stake out his own independence.

In Dublin, Mark is struggling with his thesis, losing direction and about to lose his funding too.

When he meets Joanne Lynch, a trainee solicitor from his home town at a party (one of the old-school ones with a room dedicated to the intake of cocaine) the pair begin to forge a life together, despite a long-held grudge between their fathers.

Joanne and Mark have similar experiences, both trying to explore independent lives in the city and both feeling the almost irresistible pull of filial duty.

The juxtaposition of urban and rural Ireland is very effective as Tom's parents represent a disappearing way of Irish life while Mark and Joanne's work-obsessed lives are more in keeping with the changes that have taken place here over the last 20 years.

The book is set between 2006 and 2008 and there are subtle allusions to what is to come, and the madness of the property bubble in the brightly coloured tractors of John Brady's business and the property lawsuit that Joanne is involved in.

Tom and Mark have that difficult push-pull father-son relationship that feels particularly Irish.

Their dialogue of colloquial phrases is one of the most enjoyable parts of the book, and McKeon manages to imbue words such as "well . . ." and "so . . ." with worlds of meaning.

For the most part, McKeon is admirably restrained in her telling of the story and avoids melodrama.

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At times, however, her tendency towards lyrical description can feel a little forced, as with "the baby's eyes followed the twirling reflections on the walls and the ceiling, like the ticking hands of a clock'' or "the mornings came blue and sun-dazed, a haze wrinkling the sky over the fields."

These are small complaints in a compelling story of how the adult family unit renegotiates itself. McKeon is sympathetic to all sides, including the fear and loneliness that inspires parents to guilt-trip their grown-up children.

The story falls into the bleak and simple style of writers like William Maxwell and, of course, the bucolic scenes call to mind McKeon's old hero John McGahern.

There is no denying McKeon's talent as a writer but her debut novel feels more tentative than expected, a definite testing of the waters before she breaks into a more assured stroke.

•Belinda McKeon will be reading at the Kilkenny Arts Festival on Tuesday August 9 with Kevin Barry and Paul Murray.

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