Another string to the wonderful bow of Ian McEwan

May 29, 2010 at 12:23 pm | Posted in Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | 1 Comment

Ian McEwan ‘Solar’ Jonathan Cape, May 2010

A Nobel Prize winning physicist is living on the legacy of his achievements long after they have been achieved. McEwan’s disagreeable protagonist of his latest novel ‘Solar’, Michael Beard, is a celebrated genius of his time. In his youth he invented the Beard-Einstein conflation delving deeper into the world of experimental physics than any scientist before him. He lives happily off the royalties of this work lending his name to institutions and commanding outrageous fees for speaking at conferences. The problem for Beard is that he is getting older, fatter, more disagreeable & philandering and is also finding it difficult not to drink daily. His fifth beautiful wife is about to leave him and for once she is the one having the affair not him. ‘Solar’ could be a typical well written literary novel that meets the high standards we have come to expect from Ian McEwan, but it’s greatest strength is the craft of its storytelling which is a thing of almost perfection.

Beards character is laid out in quite slow detail in the beginning of the story along with the ins and outs of his life. These details of his character are used after the halfway mark in the novel to build the subconscious rhythm and pace of the plot, which is, just as McEwan describes Michael Beards work in the field of physics, genius. For all his achievements Beard in not a moral man and his self centeredness come to be his downfall and the reader has been well informed of all his immoralities from the start.

McEwan elevates Beard at the start of the novel for his intelligence and for maybe being the type of philandering man that is secretly admired by other men. But the higher McEwan puts his leading character is the measure of how far his is going to fall. Beard becomes involved with a young scientist who passionately convinces him to use his body of work to help address the problem of climate change. The science of climate change I must admit also McEwan has also been researched immaculately.

How does the rhythm of the plot make this novel stand out from so many others?  It uses fraying friendships, geography and physical conditions to excel the inevitability of Beards downfall. Beard heads to New Mexico to deliver the most important speech of his career to convince high powered conglomerates to invest in solar energy. For all his awareness Beard unrealistically does not see that this is the penultimate moment in his life when all opposing forces in his personal and professional life collide horribly. Throughout his life Beard due to his hectic schedule has had little time for trusted partners, friends, loyal solicitors and women, to use the American expression, he has never been fully in the room with them. Phone calls go unanswered, emails unreturned, meetings cut short, commitments never made.

As the plot spreads out these trusted partners become, through their efforts to get in touch with Beard about important matters, like hunters of Beard. Chasing him over the phone across the Atlantic, sending emails and warnings. It is so clever towards the end of the novel how this climax of disaster is delivered. Trusted allies along with enemies get on trains, buses and planes and work the plot into a boiling pot of revelations. You feel the inevitability of Beards situation without Beard feeling it himself. Time and pressure are built up by characters travelling distances, phone calls increasing and threats and promises looming. Towards the end of the novel Beard has arrived in New Mexico to deliver the most important speech of his career. The physical temperature has greatly increased in the New Mexico sun, Beards health that has been deteriorating  and which he has been ignoring is burgeoning into frightening territory with wheezing, coughing, blueish marks appearing on his hands and profuse sweating become like many of the other aspects of his life a thing he can no longer ignore.

We have met scientists in Ian McEwan’s stories before, neurosurgery in  ‘Saturday’ and molecular biology in ‘Enduring Love’. We have also met typical alpha male and sexually driven characters in McEwen’s stories. This story bears those hallmarks. Beard’s personal life will stress you out but look at the craftwork of an experienced storyteller with empathetic insights into human failings. Enjoy the compact insight into solar energy and the problems of climate change and maybe agree with me that it is another string to the wonderful bow of Mr Ian McEwan.

Haiku; Will there ever be, a female protagonist, in McEwans books?

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  1. This is an excellent review of Solar, a book I very recently read. A book where no character is ‘lovable’ yet the reader cares deeply about what will happen to each. it is intelligently crafted, beautifully written, and very well researched. yet I could not begin to describe the characters and plots, something Sarah’s Books has rather brilliantly done. A great read, highly recommended. Paula

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