All That Is Solid Melts Into Air by Darragh McKeon, book review


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The Independent Culture

A debut novelist who takes his title from a famous passage in The Communist Manifesto, then sets his story in the final years of the Soviet Union, probably knows that ambition can be mistaken for self-importance.

Darragh McKeon, who steps behind the Iron Curtain in this work, has said that reading Colum McCann's Dancer, about Rudolf Nureyev, gave him "permission to take on a subject that was distant from my own experience". Unlike McCann's fiction, which depicts the great and good, McKeon's novel concerns embattled, ordinary citizens.

Soviet life is plausibly grim in McKeon's telling and his characters' fates overlap around the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. His description of the explosion at the Ukrainian nuclear plant is a stylistic high point: "small sheets drop like giant confetti upon the landscape" recalls Don DeLillo's Underworld, where torn paper falling through the air at a baseball match symbolises apocalypse. At first, bystanders interpret the Chernobyl confetti as "a practice run for the national celebrations" while Grigory, a doctor who treats radiation victims, "orders iodine tablets to be dispensed amongst the population and is informed they have only one box".

One of Grigory's patients is Artyom, a boy who is sent to a shelter for evacuees, a modern gulag where "women would stand in a line, naked … and the guards would shout out a score between one and 10." Children develop "football-size growths on the back of their skull", forests turn orange and still the government downplays the catastrophe. These details are disturbing, but only as historical information, and McKeon's narration reads more like an outsider's observations than a protagonist's experience.

The stories of Grigory's ex-wife Maria and her musical prodigy nephew Yevgeny provide convincing portraits of Moscow life. She works at a factory where it's an "imprisonable offence to cheat the clock" while he's bullied at school and falls in with a bad crowd. A tense denouement looms and, although passages are overwritten and under-edited, McKeon gets closest to evoking the psychology of people who know only Communist rule when he writes: "Maybe it was the possibility of success that scared him, that he may have to stand apart in this world."

McKeon's uneven debut reminds us that all good writing, whatever its subject or setting, is ambitious.