Monthly Archives: April 2010

Solar, by Ian McEwan

Solar, Ian McEwan

It’s no coincidence that the epigraph of Solar is a quote from John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard, the prickly, almost completely unlikable protagonist of Ian McEwan’s latest novel shares the heedless primal energies – and rationalizations for the consequences of those energies – with many of Updike’s retrograde central characters. McEwan attaches this repellent character to the themes of climate change debate and the commoditization of green technologies, and that seems troubling at first. But soldiering through that initially offputting impression, I soon realized that climate change was just one of several sacred cows bulldozed by probably the most cartoonish characters and careening plotline (with a manic quality reminiscent of Don DeLillo’s White Noise) McEwan has ever essayed. And that’s saying a lot. And that’s actually, for the most part, a compliment.

While skewering climate change and environmental discourse through Beard’s blatant opportunism and indifferent scholarship, McEwan also manages to trample everything from marriage to criminal investigations to healthy eating along the way, in rollicking and entertaining fashion. I couldn’t take any of it too seriously because I wasn’t sure McEwan was taking it too seriously himself. I get it, I get it – we have to take a huge grain of salt with the sanctimony of any noble crusade and those espousing same, and climate change is perhaps just as ripe for questioning and comeuppance as anything else. After I’ve been entertained by this book, I didn’t feel there was any longer term message I was supposed to take away other than “wait and see what Ian McEwan will do next.” This book is not going to haunt me the way “The Child in Time” or “Enduring Love” did, and it’s not going to get under my skin the way the somewhat ponderous “Atonement” and the deeply flawed “On Chesil Beach” did. But it was twisted fun while it lasted.

The Children’s Book, by AS Byatt

The Children's Book, by AS Byatt

This vivid, engrossing novel traces the entangled lives of a set of British and German families and friends through the Victorian and Edwardian periods. The book brims with rich description and an almost intimidating amount of social and historical detail, often intermingling the fictional cast of characters with real life figures, including William Morris, Oscar Wilde, JM Barrie and Emmeline Pankhurst. The Victoria and Albert Museum plays a significant role that almost makes it a character unto itself.

The Children’s Book arrestingly captures the collision of different societal, political and cultural forces leading up to the cataclysm of the First World War. With all this potential for both structural and thematic sprawl, the novel still manages to be strikingly emotionally engaging and resonant, to the very last page.

Even when addressing troubling developments and interactions amongst the entwined families, the story always proceeds at a thoughtful and measured pace and takes comfort where it can in the idyllic settings from which the families harken. The country homes of the main families are still havens, even as those places harbour some of the disappointments, secrets, memories and almost literal skeletons in closets that complicate many of their lives. By contrast, the last section of the book seems hurried, but at the same time undoubtedly replicates well the headlong rush into wrenching, unimaginable upheaval that was the First World War. In fact, the jarringly terse tone of some of the final scenes make them that much more affecting.

Byatt weaves myriad recurring images and scenarios throughout – those of flowing water, earth and clay, and puppets, doppelgangers, twins and unwitting siblings (which might be a bit of a spoiler!) are most arresting. On every level, The Children’s Book is a captivating and very memorable read.