Darragh McKeon’s debut novel All That is Solid Melts into Air is a revisit of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster but also so much more. It is a love story, a story of growth, a story of life during the communist regime in the Soviet Union. McKeon’s book revolves around a handful or characters that are connected not only through fate but also through the constrictions that were imposed in the Soviet Union. The book begins and ends with Yevgeni, a young musical prodigy who grows up and witnesses the Chernobyl disaster as well as the fall of the Soviet Union a few years later in 1989. We are all aware of Chernobyl and the aftermath of it. We all know about the death, the radiation, the lives lost and doomed. However, McKeon’s book lets the reader experience Chernobyl and relives it through his realistic and heart-breaking narrative. Yevgeni frames the book but he is not the central character. The reader encounters Grigory, the gifted surgeon, whose fate was to go and treat the people suffering the consequences of Chernobyl. The reader gets to know Grigory and sympathise with his compassion and talent only to see him suffer a death caused not only by radiation but also by the hypocrisy of the regime. The reader sees Maria whose love for Grigory is only matched by her love for Yevgeni, her nephew. Her struggle for fairness and better life exposes a different aspect of the Soviet Union. Chernobyl scars her just like everybody else but her struggle is with the limits exposed by the communist regime, the lack of truth and the abundance of pretence. And what about Artyom, a child just like Yevgeni, although not a genius, who loses everything to Chernobyl yet finds the will to keep on going by nursing an ill dog with the help of Grigory. It is these small everyday details, a sick dog, an old piano, an unexpected phone call, that make McKeon’s novel the masterpiece it is. It is easy to depict tragedy when there is already an existing source, the disaster Chernobyl is. However, it is the proof of a good author to take a disaster and turn it into a hopeful story despite the death and tragedy.
McKeon’s choice to focus on a few people lets the reader peak into the realities behind the Soviet regime. He also lets the reader experience a true disaster and through his characters the reader relives Chernobyl, the fire and radiation, the loss lives, the blotched up cover up from the Soviets and the lifetime implications the disaster had on people and the regime as a whole. His story is about a few people in the 1986 and their stories but it is also so much more than that. It is an exploration of an era, of a regime that saw hundreds of thousands lose their lives for a cause that was wrong. Not surprisingly the title is taken from Marx’s Communist Manifesto a reminder of a past system whose implications are still felt. As Maria says in the end of the book “The past demands fidelity. I often think it’s the only thing that truly belongs to us.” And McKeon’s book is a tribute to the past and a reminder to us, the people who live in the present, that the past is never that far away from us so we’d better remember lest we forget and repeat the same mistakes.
All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is out now via Penguin.