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The BookBrowse Review

Published May 21, 2014

ISSN: 1930-0018

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All That Is Solid Melts into Air
All That Is Solid Melts into Air
by Darragh McKeon

Paperback (29 Apr 2014), 464 pages.
Publisher: Harper Perennial
ISBN-13: 9780062246875
BookBrowse:
Critics:

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All That Is Solid Melts into Air is a gripping end-of-empire novel, charting the collapse of the Soviet Union through the focalpoint of the Chernobyl disaster. Part historical epic, part love story, it recalls The English Patient in its mix of emotional intimacy and sweeping landscape.

In a run-down apartment block in Moscow, a nine-year-old piano prodigy practices silently for fear of disturbing the neighbors.

In a factory on the outskirts of the city, his aunt makes car parts, trying to hide her dissident past.

In the hospital, a leading surgeon buries himself deep in his work to avoid facing his failed marriage.

And in a rural village in the Ukraine, a teenage boy wakes up to a sky of the deepest crimson. In the fields, the ears of the cattle are dripping blood. Ten miles away, at the Chernobyl Power Plant, something unimaginable has happened.

Now their lives will change forever.

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is an astonishing end-of-empire novel by a major new talent.

Excerpt
All That Is Solid Melts into Air

He comes to her daily, slipping into her mind between breaths. She draws him in as she draws in air, pedaling along the Quai de Valmy, as she draws in her new surroundings; the glow of a Paris summer, the jigsaw of shadows thrown across her forearms when she sweeps beneath a canopy of poplars.

She can never say what it is that triggers a recollection, they come into being in such stealthy ways. Perhaps there was something of Grigory in the man with the cigarette at the lock just passed, a familiarity in the way this stranger brought a flaring match to his face. But then the breadth of their marriage contains a corresponding moment for any of the thousands of minute actions that surround her.

His image is lost to her now, belonging solely to the photographs he inhabits. She can no longer see him in resemblance, but only in the motions of others, so that when she chains her bicycle to the railings by the canal and steps toward the café terrace, he is echoed in the man who looks toward her: not through the dark Gallic features, but in the nod of the head, the opening of the long, deft fingers, the downturn of the eyes.

These are the small consolations that death offers. Her husband still turning the key to an undiscovered chamber of her heart.


April 1986

When Yevgeni closes his eyes, the world comes in.

The world rattling and banging, whispers and footfalls, the hiss of trains, the bleep and slide of doors, announcements on the P.A. system cracked and frail and distant, people saying "Excuse me," or, less polite, "Out of my way," "Move in." Sound in tides. The train comes, the crowd boards, the train goes, nearer silence now, new people striding down the platform, the train arriving again. Escalators relentlessly creaking, jumping in pitch, constant in rhythm.

A clasp unhooks on a bag, resonating timidly.

He can make out all the individual noises, this is the easy part, a recognition game. But Yevgeni can also block out all associations, can bathe only in pure sound, the patterns it weaves down here. This is the child's special gift, although he doesn't know it yet—how can he, nine years old.

Yevgeni's head is tilted back, he's standing ramrod straight, arms by his side, an unlikely statue in the centre of the concourse.

He opens his eyes to see a parachute jumper shooting towards him face first, his chute rippling behind him, caught in the last few seconds before the cloth would unfurl hard and taut and the man would be yanked by his shoulders right way up and float silently in the clouds, abandoned to the whims of the wind. Yevgeni can hear this too, block out all the noise around him and listen to the bulging drone of the passing plane, to the darting air currents, the sound of the man's fall, sound stretched in time and air and speed.

He is in Mayakovskaya station, gazing at the oval mosaics overhead, each one forming a part of the overarching theme: "A Day of the Soviet Sky." Yevgeni doesn't know the scenes have a title and it doesn't matter. He can just stand and look and let imagination fill in the rest. Down here there is no music, only noise, pure sound, the passing plane has no orchestral sweep, the man has no sonata accompanying him to his destiny. Down here Yevgeni is free to put together melodies from all that surrounds him, the tumbling effluvia of daily life. There are no crotchets and quavers down here. There are no staff lines and indicators of volume: forte, pianissimo. There is just sound, in the fullness of its natural expression.

Smack.

A raw stinging in his ear. A shrill industrial note, the same one the TV makes when programming is finished for the evening.

Yevgeni knows what to expect before he even looks.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from All That Is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon. Copyright © 2014 by Darragh McKeon. Excerpted by permission of Harper Perennial. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Using the focal point of the Chernobyl disaster, All That is Solid Melts Into Air charts the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Print Article

"All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind." These famous lines from the Communist Manifesto are widely considered a sendup of the principles of capitalism, a forecast of the belief that a way of life built on capturing ever new markets can never be sustainable and will eventually collapse. The irony in All That is Solid Melts Into Air, Darragh McKeon's brilliant debut novel, is that it positions the theory at a new angle, back at the Soviet Union, and succeeds in driving home the point that any society where its citizens' wishes are quashed in pursuit of a larger goal is one that fosters Marx's terrifying nightmare.

Using the Chernobyl disaster (see Beyond the Book) as a compelling backdrop, McKeon explores life behind the Iron Curtain in the late 80s and 90s when, despite the early promise of Glasnost, nothing much changes for the average Russian citizen. A primary set of characters orbit around each other, their paths occasionally intersecting in interesting ways: Maria Nikolaevna used to be a Moscow journalist before a frank airing of opinions got her into trouble. These days she works a production line at a Moscow factory, barely bringing in enough to pay rent for the apartment she shares with her sister Alina, a laundress. Alina's son, Yevgeny, a child who shows plenty of promise at the piano, might yet win a scholarship at the music conservatory. And Maria's ex-husband, Grigory Ivanovich Brovkin, is a doctor at a local Moscow hospital. He is one of the first sent to the "front" when the Chernobyl disaster unfolds.

The accident triggers a communique from the Chairman of the Council of Ministers. "For your information, there has been a fire reported in Reactor 4 of the Ukrainian nuclear-power plant, Chernobyl. The incident is under control but we have reports that the damage may be significant. However, I can reassure you that this incident will not stop the advance of nuclear energy." This clipped response masks the immense gravity of the tragedy that is slowly unspooling in one corner of the Soviet Union - where people are dying horrific deaths from exposure and its related side effects. Mckeon's descriptions of the fallout are memorable, not just for the pain he depicts so movingly, but for the fact that he does so without a hint of melodrama. What's even more unsettling is the knowledge that there's a cloud of suspicion and half-truths; that information is not being shared fully; that the enormous human costs of such a tragedy are largely being swept under the rug. The disaster was horrific of course, as McKeon underscores, but what's worse is that it was underwritten by many smaller tragedies that have been a systematic part of Russian life for decades. It is perhaps captured in the absolute numbness these characters feel in the wake of the accident - hesitant to ask questions, knowing they have limited options for refuge and feeling absolutely terrified of speaking up.

As Grigory tries his best to save lives in Chernobyl and nearby Pripyat, which houses the workers, it's heartbreaking to see his every effort come up empty-handed. "No officials have made their way here, despite his daily entreaties. He wants them to walk into this room, a place where ideology, political systems, hierarchy, dogma, are relegated to mere words, belonging to files, banished to some dusty office. There is no system of belief that can account for this. The medical staff know that, in comparison, nothing that has gone before in their lives has any significance. There are only these months, these rooms, these people."

Back in Moscow, inspired by Poland's Solidarity movement, Maria wants to galvanize her fellow factory workers into action but can't seem to stir the pot in secret; she is especially worried that her actions might have repercussions for her family members including Alina and Yevgeny.

The ending fast-forwards many years into the future and shows the path that each character's life eventually takes. Even if it is sometimes hard to make this leap from an amorphous present to a clearer future, All That is Solid is a brilliant peek behind the Iron Curtain - a perfect snapshot of a behemoth floundering before collapse. "Sometimes I hear these words, 'glasnost, 'perestroika,' and they sound to me like the final breaths of an empire," Maria says. The toxic clouds, it seems then, were hanging around long before Chernobyl ever came along.

Reviewed by Poornima Apte

Publishers Weekly
McKeon's fiction serves up, without cliché, what so many futuristic dystopian novels aspire to: a reminder that human beings can bring about their own demise.

Booklist
Set amidst the Chernobyl disaster, McKeon's…graceful writing gives depth to his characters as they navigate indelibly changed landscapes and search for connection within chaos.

Library Journal
Starred Review. This startling debut novel is a love story set against the harrowing tale of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.… A promising debut; highly recommended.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. This debut novel is set in 1986, the year of the catastrophe at Chernobyl, and that disaster serves as the dramatic backdrop for the unfolding of action and character… Serious and thoughtful fiction.

Author Blurb Colm Tóibín
This daring and ambitious novel blends historical epic and love story… Darragh McKeon handles the struggles of his characters with care and compassion and creates a book rich with resonance far beyond its historical moment.

Author Blurb Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin
Brilliantly imagined in its harrowing account of the Chernobyl disaster and exhilarating in its sweep, All That Is Solid Melts into Air is a debut to rattle all the windows and open up the ventricles of the heart…McKeon is here to stay.

Print Article

The Chernobyl Disaster

In All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, the Chernobyl disaster acts as the primary backdrop against which the story unfolds. Darragh McKeon describes the accident and the horrific aftermath in moving detail.

Chernobyl DisasterThe disaster took place more than twenty-five years ago, on April 26, 1986, Situated about 88 miles north of Kiev in Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union, the nuclear plant comprised four reactors all based on the Soviet designed RBMK-1000 model. In this model, enriched uranium is used to heat water, which is then used to drive turbines and generate electricity. In most nuclear reactors, water is also used as a gauge to control the core's reactivity. This means that as the core heats up, it produces steam or bubbles in the water, and the system is designed to automatically temper things down and not let the nuclear reactions get out of hand. In this design, however, as more steam is produced, things get even more reactive creating a dangerous self-sustaining loop – a flawed model from the start.

The accident destroyed reactor four. During the night of the accident engineers performing what were, supposedly, routine tests switched off automatic shutdown mechanisms. A random high demand for power lead to a surge of production and when the cooling rods were eventually dunked in the water coolant, the resultant steam increased the reactivity in the core creating a violent reaction and an explosion that eventually spewed tons of radioactive material into the air - the graphite rods also burned along with other components of reactor four which was still operational at the time.

Red ForestThe (approximately) 49,000 residents of Pripyat, a purpose-built city to support the plant, were evacuated, but not before substantial damage had already been done and the radiation cloud spread to neighboring Belarus and Europe. The Soviet Union, in fact, kept the disaster under wraps until a power plant in Sweden detected unusually high levels of radiation in the surrounding atmosphere, which was confirmed by other European sources as well. Twenty-eight emergency workers died within three months of the accident, and hundreds more developed thyroid cancer from the radiation. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that there will be 50,000 excess cancer cases across Europe as a result of the disaster, half of which will lead to premature death. Wildlife and forests were severely damaged and became known as "Red Forests" because the trees turned a bright ginger color. These days wildlife is slowly coming back although growth in the immediate neighborhood the plant is still stunted.

Chernobyl with sarcophagus coverThe reactor was eventually sealed with a makeshift concrete sarcophagus, which has been shaky in the protection it offers. In a multi-national effort, a huge arch sheathed in stainless steel is being constructed. It will cover the sarcophagus and the entire reactor unit, and will contain any radioactive dust that would escape if the structure eventually collapses. The arch, which covers acres of stainless steel and has a complex engineering structure, is expected to cost $1.5 billion when finally done - the project is expected to be completed in 2017. A circular exclusion zone with a radius of about 19 miles still exists encompassing an area of about 1000 sq miles, even while some tourists come to take a peek at the worst civilian nuclear disaster in history.

Chernobyl disaster, courtesy of the Soviet Government
The Red Forest, courtesy of Timm Suess
Chernobyl with the sarcophagus container, courtesy of Carl Montgomery

By Poornima Apte

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