30 April 2014

All That is Solid Melts Into Air

Russia, 1986. On a run-down apartment block in Moscow, a nine-year-old prodigy plays his piano silently for fear of disturbing the neighbors. In a factory on the outskirts of the city, his aunt makes car parts, hiding her dissident past. In a nearby hospital, a surgeon immerses himself in his work, avoiding his failed marriage.

And in a village in Belarus, a teenage boy wakes to a sky of the deepest crimson. Outside, the ears of his neighbor's cattle are dripping blood. Ten miles away, at the Chernobyl Power Plant, something unimaginable has happened.Now their lives will change forever.

An end-of-empire novel charting the collapse of the Soviet Union, All That Is Solid Melts into Air is a gripping and epic love story by a major new talent.

I was eight when news about Chernobyl broke.  I remember maps of the "cloud" that threatened to disperse deadly radiation via a wind from the Soviet Union.  The news did its level best to scare the pants off of pretty much everyone.

What fear we felt here in the US was a mere speck compared to the terror those in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union went through where danger existed from both radiation and government mis-information.  Darragh McKeon has brought that world to life with characters both near to and far from the accident at Chernobyl.  At first, nothing seems wrong.  People go to work, boys practice the piano, fathers and sons go hunting.  And then, the world around Chernobyl begins to change, physically.  The writing is atmospheric - not "atmospheric" as in this-is-a-word-found-in-a-blurb but truly evocative of an area of the world so impacted by man-made radiation and fall-out that it cannot belong to our normal frame of reference.  The forest doesn't just shrivel and die; it cycles through an incredible sequence of colors.  The horrific way the human body reacts to differing levels of radiation, melting down in unheard-of ways.

Each of the main characters - Grigory the surgeon, Maria the factory worker, Alina her sister, Zhenya the piano prodigy, and Artyom a boy from a village near Chernobyl - has a meltdown during the novel as they fight against restraints, the lack of information, the lack of freedom, the lack of transparency.  McKeon follows his characters as they live beyond the immediate aftermath of the accident with just one unraveled thread escaped from the neat bow.

The level of research and detail provided by McKeon paints a chilling picture of a governmental regime trapped within its own rhetoric, slowly spiraling toward dissolution. Don't ask questions, don't poke around, keep your head down and don't think for yourself.  The most horrific scene presents early in the novel in the form of an emergency manual with all relevant information blacked out; belief in the system is so great that even the idea of disaster preparedness is anathema.  Even though the accident at Chernobyl is nearly 30 years in the past many parallels can be drawn to events in the 2010s.

All That is Solid Melts Into Air is one of the best books I've read in 2014.  An excellent debut.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this novel from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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