For every book we read during the book club, one of our book club members will write a review. This way anyone who couldn’t be there, can still join in with the fun! Our twelfth book is All That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon and the review is written by Tijs van Bakel.
All That is Solid Melts into Air follows a handful of people in the days and months after the nuclear power plant disaster in Chernobyl in 1986. The story centers around a doctor, Grigory, who tries to help those who were close to the disaster and suffer from radiation poisoning. Grigory is the archetypal good guy and apart from some naiveness I cannot find much fault with his person. However, McKeon destroys his relationship with the lovable Maria, and even kills him at the end of the novel (sorry for the spoiler). This unfortunate state of Grigory is caused directly by the intricacies of the communist regime.
Given that Darragh McKeon is a westerner, and the title is taken from The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, it is tempting to consider this book as straightforward criticism aimed at the communist system. However, I wish to think that it is better than that, and that the book is rich enough to leave more to the imagination.
Although the story centers on Grigory, the book is told from several perspectives. One of these is Yevgeni, the son of Maria’s sister Alina, who is nine years old at the time of the disaster. He is a promising piano player and possibly the only one with a chance to succeed for what remains of his family. He has trouble finding his way in his own ecosystem, in which he is constantly and quite terribly being bullied by other school boys. The book ends looking back from 2011, 25 years after the disaster, when Yevgeni has become a very successful and renowned piano player.
So what am I to make of this? How can it be that one person has such success where the other fails miserably? McKeon paints a bleak picture of incomprehensible external factors determining the outcome of one’s life. The only hope he gives us in this fatalistic world is another theme in the book: people need someone to care for. Two friends survive military training together, a young boy survives his misery because he gets a dog to care for, a mother cares for her children, an aunt cares for her nephew. The problem remains that it is unclear who you get to care for, if you even get the chance.
How this all relates to a nuclear power plant disaster is a bit of a mystery to me. I find this the biggest problem with the book. I think the theme of Chernobyl is mildly confusing, perhaps even unnecessary. In that light, it is more likely that I simply do not like historic novels all too much. In my mind, the reality of the disaster and the complexity of nuclear power problems overshadow anything that happens to any fictional character. Which is too bad, because the novel is very well written. All in all, there is a lot to think about. Great book for a discussion, not very uplifting, but you may want to read it.