Friday, 20 May 2011

Book review: SOLAR by Ian McEwan

Great writers don’t always write great books. And I do not mean they fail or write crappy ones – no, it’s just that sometimes they do it deliberately. They do it on purpose. This is like Graham Greene resorting to his ‘entertainment novels’, this is like Martin Amis coming up with Night Train after The Information, this is like a novelist going for a short story collection once in a while. A breather, an outlet for some smart and tempting thought that maybe won’t set the world on fire but that you are reluctant to throw away. Particularly with all that skill, talent you possess. 

Solar (2010) is a lovely little satirical novel from Ian McEwan. And by ‘little’ I do not mean the book’s length – in fact (and somewhat perversely), this novel is among McEwan’s longer ones. But whereas books like Amsterdam or Black Dogs were given the necessary weight by that serious, grave subject matter and McEwan’s no-nonsense style and vibe, Solar, while certainly not a comedy, reads like intellectual pulp fiction of superior quality. McEwan makes the human tragedy that is there approach farce so often that you are left with an odd feeling this is a kind of a Victorian novel informed by modern problems and realities. Not that I mind. 

In a nutshell, Solar is about a man who framed himself. Michael Beard, a Noble Prize winning physicist, leads a really messed-up family life. Which suits him fine up to a certain point: he learns that his fifth wife has the effrontery to cheat on him. With a builder and, to make matters even worse, with Beard’s colleague (from some imaginary research centre in Reading – they work on solar energy). The latter’s death in a freak accident is the onset of a rather grotesque plot that involves intellectual theft, inflated ego, treachery and possibly even a spot of real love. Beard gets caught up in a game he is bound to lose. Even if he does get so close to becoming the hero who saves the planet from global warming. So yes, the subject matter is indeed serious enough – but in the end it’s all about the way you present it. Ian McEwan does that in an amusing, accessible (though never chummy), thoroughly entertaining way. 

Still, we do get that snappy tragicomic feel at the end of the novel. The last few sentences are really powerful. And the image of an innocent loving girl running up to her doomed, confused father is as vivid and memorable as an author can get. 

Not a McEwan classic by any means (I bet he knows as much), but still a solid, moving book of a true master. Intelligent and addictive, the book might win him some fans. But most importantly, it makes one think of another Saturday that must be coming someday soon.


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