Book review: All that is solid melts into air

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Fine debut novel fully captures the mood of the USSR’s last years

Darragh McKeon’s first novel is set in the last decade of the Soviet Union; at its centre is the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Its appalling consequences are fully and, as far as I can tell, accurately described. This is doubtless the fruit of much research, but McKeon, happily, wears his research lightly, and never allows it to weigh down his narrative or reduce his characters to mere ciphers. He lets them speak for themselves.

Where there is indignation on account of the inefficiency and mendacity of the Soviet authorities, McKeon ensures that it belongs to the characters, and chiefly to one of them, Grigory Ivanovich Brovkin, a surgeon who is sent to help with the relief work at Chernobyl and subsequently disgraced and ostracised when he tries to reveal the truth of what happened there.

Much of the novel is set in Moscow, where Grigory’s estranged wife, Maria, once a dissident journalist, now a factory worker and part-time teacher, lives with her widowed sister Alina and her young nephew Yevgeni who, at the age of nine, is a musical prodigy, a pianist who shows promise of genius. Their life is hard, frustrating for Maria, full of anxiety for Alina, and also for the boy, who is bullied at school, aware of his difference from his fellows and given to tantrums and moments of rebellion.

All three are fully imagined and realised characters, as is Yevgeni’s piano teacher, a veteran survivor of the gulags now caring tenderly for his wife in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. McKeon has created characters you care about, ones whom you hope will survive and achieve happy endings. He recognises virtue where it exists, but never succumbs to sentimentality.

The Soviet Union itself is in its death throes. The KGB and its informants are everywhere. The correct slogans are still mouthed, but few believe in them any longer. The workers’ paradise is made tolerable only by vodka and sour jokes. There is still fear, even if it is not as acute as in the Stalinist years. The regime is as inefficient as it is corrupt. There are things that cannot be said, stories that cannot be told. Maria was disgraced when she wrote articles about the Solidarity dissident movement in Poland, but her punishment was work on an assembly-line, not the gulag or the cellars of the Lubyanka.

McKeon catches the atmosphere of these twilight Soviet years very well indeed. Moments of tenderness light up the bloom and make some of the horrors of Chernobyl tolerable. There is warmth even for the embattled Grigory in the gratitude a family of peasant survivors feel for him and are eventually able to express. The account of the days and weeks immediately after the disaster is riveting, Grigory’s fate painful. The truth is, of course, that he was the victim of a regime which had long ago made it impossible to tell the truth. Even his oldest friend turns his back on him rather than face the truth, because this is how you protect your own back in a deeply corrupt society. The astonishing thing this novel shows, is not that so many behaved badly, but that some behaved well.

McKeon is a generous writer, ready to acknowledge that there are times when most ordinary people are subjected to intolerable pressures which lead them to behave badly. One of the few arguments between Maria and Alina concerns their late father. He acted as an informer. The intelligent and high-principled Maria can’t forgive him; Alina, widowed and working hard to bring up Yevgeni (though she has no understanding of what music means to him) takes the view that their father did what he had to do to survive.

This is a remarkable first novel, one I began with uncertainty, even misgivings, and found myself drawn into and engrossed by. It is full of vitality. Admittedly, it might have benefited from some pruning by a less indulgent editor, for there are several scenes and lengthy descriptions which go on for some time after their point has been sufficiently made. But this is a venial fault, and the reader can always indulge in what Scott called “the laudable practice of skipping”.

Darragh McKeon has hitherto worked mostly in the theatre. I don’t know how talented a director he is, but have no doubt that he is a natural novelist, and already a very good one.