On gazing at a ward full of young children born with horrific defects due to fallout from the Chernobyl disaster, Grigory Brovkin is preoccupied with the “beauty and ugliness resting within the single body of a diseased infant. The two faces of nature brought into stark relief.” Such contrasts are manifold in the story of Grigory; we see him as a young army conscript in awe at Russia’s greatest natural wonders, brought to tears by the majestic Manpupuner rock formations and watching whales surface while fishing on Lake Baikal, but also as a senior surgeon transferred from Moscow to the nuclear wasteland of Chernobyl. He is haunted in his abject loneliness by memories of estranged wife Maria, a former dissident journalist persecuted by a system whose authority is now seen to be rapidly eroding.
The contrast of beauty and ugliness is also apparent in the story of Maria’s nephew Yevgeni, a musical prodigy who experiences the world through his acute sense of hearing, feeling out a rhythmic harmony even in the humdrum and violence of less desirable neighbourhoods of Moscow. To his counterpart Artyom, the world is revealed rather through colour and the intricacies of light, but the beautiful shade of the sky that he notices one morning in April 1986 turns out to signify doom for his small and peaceful village on the Ukrainian-Belarusian border. In a similar vein, Yevgeni’s musical talent is tightly intertwined with more violent impulses that come to the fore amid the impending chaos of late Soviet Moscow.
These stories are brought together in All That is Solid Melts into Air, the debut novel from Irish writer and theatre director Darragh McKeon. One of the novel’s most fascinating aspects is the way that history interacts with fiction: historical events provide a backdrop for a series of family dramas, while the depiction of fictional familial relationships simultaneously heighten the emotional effect of McKeon’s illustration of Soviet hegemony and descriptions of the terrible and often gruesome destruction wrought by the Chernobyl disaster. Many of the novel’s details are taken from painstaking research of historical accounts and first-person testimonies.
On learning that McKeon only visited Moscow for the first time ten years into writing the novel, it is easy to presume that a lack of intimacy with this famously enigmatic region might be his undoing, but the author’s immaculate research rarely fails him. He has the necessary confidence to write as an outsider with an authoritative narrative voice and adeptly interweaves the novel’s different subplots, although the openness of the prose and occasional heavy-handedness of metaphors means that the book could never be mistaken for a Russian work in translation.
All That is Solid Melts into Air is far from a perfect novel, and its flaws are particularly exposed in the last hundred pages, with a couple of central character relationships lacking development and key subplots reaching an unsatisfactory denouement. Nonetheless, it is a powerful and thought-provoking work, and brings to light a young writer with a great deal of sensibility and skill.
All That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon is available from Viking Press at £14.99