Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 352 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Belinda McKeon’s debut novel Solace is one of those books that has definitely improved with age. I read it several weeks ago and planned on giving it a three-star review. But I’ve thought about the book — unintentionally — a bit since then, almost as if certain characters and scenes have wormed into my brain, ready to reappear when I least expect them. When a story sticks like that, it has to be a good sign.
For background information, I first saw a review of Solace on the blog Just William’s Luck, which encouraged me to bump it a bit higher up my TBR. Not that there was ever any doubt that I would read this one: Belinda McKeon is Irish and the press release that accompanied my edition was littered with quotes from the great and the good of the Irish literary establishment — Colum McCann, Anne Enright and Colm Toibin. With names like that on your side, how could McKeon go wrong?
Without wishing to damn Solace with faint praise, it does tell the age old Irish story of strained relationships between fathers and sons. John McGahern is the master of this theme — the classic examples being The Dark and Amongst Women — but McKeon adds a modern twist. The setting is contemporary Ireland — the 2008 financial crash has happened — and the son, Mark Casey, lives in Dublin, while the father, Tom, is running the farm single-handedly in County Longford.
The problem is that Tom can’t run the farm alone, but because he is of that generation of men, unable to communicate with their children, he never fully articulates what it is he wants from Mark. And Mark, who is a doctoral student at Trinity College, is too passive to ever truly stand up to his father’s unspoken demands. But these parental obligations — and expectations — weigh on him heavily.
Mark might be approaching 30, but he has never truly managed to live his own life. Weekends are reluctantly — and resentfully — given up to help Tom bale hay or plough fields, and when the father and son are together there is tension between them. Words, when they are spoken, are harsh and bitter-edged. It is only the delicate manoeuvring of Mark’s mother that keeps the fragile peace in place.
Then, inevitably, Mark falls in love with a trainee solicitor, the beguiling Joanne, he meets at a party in Dublin. By a stroke of co-incidence (and there are several of these in the book), Jo happens to be from his home town, and she, too, has problems with her parents: she is estranged from her mother, and her father, whom she did not trust, is dead. This may partly explain why Mark and Joanne hit it off so quickly.
But McKeon uses the pairing to set up an unconvincing (and in my opinion, unnecessary) plot device, in which Joanne’s dad and Mark’s dad have past history. It seems the two of them spectacularly fell out over a property deal decades ago, and this creates additional tension for Mark — how does he tell his father that his new priority is a woman, rather than the farm, and worse, how does he tell him that the woman is the daughter of a man who wronged him?
That bit of melodrama aside, the novel is written in an understated, restrained style.
In the book’s prologue we know there has been some kind of family tragedy — Tom and Mark are together on the farm, looking after young girl, whom we can only assume is Mark’s daughter — but McKeon refrains from offering any explanation. Indeed, when the tragedy occurs, more than half-way through the book, it’s written in such vague terms it seems anti-climatic. I had to re-read it several times to make sure I’d understood what had happened.
By contrast, some of the scenes in the book seem over-worked and false — Joanne’s troubles at work, for instance, seem laboured; Mark’s shopping trip with his mother doesn’t completely ring true — but there’s a quiet and devastating beauty to this story, about real people trying to make the best of their lives under trying circumstances. As a portrait of a father and son battling to comprehend, trust and respect one another, it’s very authentic — to the point I wanted to yell at Mark to stand up for himself and to pull Tom aside to have a few quiet words.
Solace may not be a polished novel, but it’s an astoundingly good one for a first-time author, and it certainly marks McKeon as a new Irish literary talent to watch.