Literary Corner Cafe

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Book Review - Solace by Belinda McKeon

Solace, the debut novel from Irish poet and playwright Belinda McKeon, which has been getting a lot of attention lately, is a family drama, or more precisely, an exploration of the bonds and difficulties that exist between a father and a son. We initially encounter this particular father and son in a prologue that is really taken, not from the beginning of the book, but from its middle, a choice that’s partly good, and partly not-so-good.

The father is Tom Casey, a taciturn, hard-bitten, hard-working farmer in County Longford in southern Ireland. Tom is a man whose education and interests are quite limited. He knows all about honor, though, and loyalty and responsibility. There are those who would do well to take a leaf or two from Tom Casey’s book, even though he isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, perfect. And while Tom loves his family fiercely, like the old fashioned man he is, he also expects them to obey. In Tom Casey’s house, Tom Casey’s word is law.

The person Tom understands least is his own son, Mark, who, as the book opens, is down from Dublin for the summer with his young daughter, Aiofe, to help his father with the baling of the hay. The two men eye each other with suspicion and mistrust. Tom sees Mark as sullen, while Mark resents Tom’s attentions to Aiofe. (That strange – to American ears – name seems to be pronounced ee-FA.) In the book’s opening pages, we get a sense of the strained relationship between Tom and Mark, and we also get the sense that something significant has happened that affects, not just these two men, but the entire Casey family. It isn’t what’s said; it’s what’s unsaid. It’s in the looks the local shopgirls give Tom and Aiofe as they make their purchases. And this isn’t the first time those looks have been given:

It was as familiar to him by now as the sight of his own eyes in the bathroom mirror, the look that he had caught on their faces: fear and thrill and greed and pure excitement; a glimpse right into the wreckage on the side of the road.

After presenting us with the prologue, McKeon moves the reader back in time to the events that set her story in motion, back to Mark’s days as a student at Trinity College in Dublin. Unlike his father, Mark never had any use for rural life, and he was relieved to leave the farm for Dublin and Trinity. But Mark doesn’t really fit in with “big city” life, either. He’s a PhD candidate, writing a thesis on the work of Maria Edgeworth, a writer who was from the same part of Ireland as Mark, and whose family's former ascendancy estate now houses the hospital where Mark's mother, Maura, used to work as a nurse. Like many grad students, Mark finds he’s late turning in the next chapter of his thesis; in fact, he’s pretty much lost interest in school and would rather drift along, drinking beer and frittering away his time.

Mark’s life changes when he meets pretty, green-eyed, trainee solicitor, Joanne Lynch, who just happens to have grown up very close to Mark’s family’s home. More outgoing that Tom, and more energetic, Joanne might seem, at first glance, to be just what Mark needs in order to turn his stalled life around. There’s a huge problem, however. Joanne’s late father was a real scoundrel, a swindler, and one of the persons he swindled was Tom Casey. And Tom Casey still bears a grudge against the Lynch family, a grudge that will come into play when Mark and Joanne embark upon an intense love affair, one that quickly produces the couple's daughter, the charming Aiofa.

This “ancient grudge” theme is a familiar one in Irish literature. It’s been done before, and I really can’t say it’s done best in Solace. It isn’t. Edna O’Brien did a far better job working with the “ancient grudge” theme in Wild Decembers, for example. And if one wants the best example of a “continuation of the parents’ feud” one need look no further than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

The “ancient grudge” and the “continuation of the parents’ feud,” however, aren’t the main themes of this novel. The father-son relationship, and the divide between the rural/traditional and the city/progressive ways of life always take center stage. Joanne even has a small subplot that revolves around the parent-child relationship, around family inheritance and family responsibility, but this subplot isn’t as developed or as significant as it could have been.

To tell you that a tragic event takes place just past the midpoint of this book probably isn’t going to come as any surprise. It’s been foreshadowed in this review, and that’s only because McKeon foreshadows it so strongly in her book. Far too strongly, I think. I was surprised that the author gave so much away so soon, given how subtle she was in her writing regarding other things, e.g., a physical fight between Tom and Mark.

One professional reviewer characterized the tragedy that befalls the Casey family as one “which even Hardy might have found it difficult to deal.” I can’t agree with that. My goodness, has the reviewer not read Jude the Obscure? Thomas Hardy wasn’t afraid to tackle any tragedy, and while the bereavement in Solace is truly terrible and truly tragic, it’s not something that’s unique to the Casey family. That doesn’t mean I didn’t care. I did. At least I tried to. It does, however, mean that the book isn’t as fresh and original as it could have been. In some ways, I thought McKeon was taking the easy way out. There were so many other ways, ways that hadn’t been done to death, to throw Tom and Mark, and even Aiofe, together and test their relationships and their boundaries.

Three very different characters – Mark, Tom, and Joanne – function as point-of-view characters in this novel. While I thought Tom was particularly well drawn, I can’t say the same for Mark and Joanne. Joanne’s a likable girl, filled with energy and spirit. We know too little about Joanne, though, her deeper feelings about Mark and Aiofe and her own parents.

I have to admit, I didn’t like Mark at all. He seemed downright childish and hateful when he observes, with much disdain, that Tom doesn’t even know the meaning of “ignorant” and when noting another farmer’s talk about “global warning.” I don’t need to like every character I encounter in a novel. In fact, sometimes the ones I don’t like are the most interesting. And there’s the rub. Not only is Mark unlikable, he’s extremely dull and uninteresting as well. Nothing, not even Joanne or Aiofe seems to awaken a spark of passion in this fumbling, callow, and self-centered young man. While reading, I was always anxious to leave Joanne’s and Mark’s words behind and get back to Tom’s.

The very best thing about Solace is the character of Tom Casey. Now, Tom is definitely not dull and callow. In many ways, Tom is very ordinary and unremarkable. He’s a hard-working man who adores his young granddaughter and finds it difficult to get along with his grown son, a son who has very different ideas about life and how it should be lived. Tom, though, possesses a vitality, and yes, even a charm, that all of the other characters in Solace lack. I felt the uniqueness of Tom, the genuineness. One of the novel’s best and most genuine scenes revolves around Tom as he’s first taken aback by one of Aiofe’s tantrums, then finds the whole thing laughable, then dissolves into tears, the tears he had been, until that point, unable to shed. It’s the character of Tom Casey who brings this book to life. He’s just a magnificent creation.

As unlikable as I found Mark, I did like the way McKeon refused to judge her characters. All of them are, in their own way, greatly flawed human beings, and fallible, never wholly “right” and never wholly “wrong.” This refusal to judge reminded me of Kent Haruf’s beautiful novels Plainsong and Eventide, both of which I loved, and of course, of William Trevor, though McKeon definitely isn’t on par with either of those great authors. I’m not saying she couldn’t be in the future, just that she isn’t there yet despite the praise Solace has received.

The prose in this novel is adequate, but except for snatches here and there, not great. I did like McKeon’s understatement, and I thought it fit well into the Irish tradition of John McGahern, Brian Moore, and William Trevor, for instance. But unlike those giants of Irish literature, McKeon seems so afraid of falling into sentimentality that she almost completely avoids any expression of emotion, leaving her book rather flat and monotone, and failing, most of the time, to engage at least one reader. The stark tension and pinpoint focus of the prologue, which really is wonderfully written, is sadly lost in stale jokes and too many details for the balance for the book.

And there’s altogether too much “telling” in this novel as opposed to “showing.” A prime example is a physical altercation between Tom and Mark. This should have been a raw, visceral scene, but McKeon fails to give us any of that raw emotion:

Then he (Tom) went deep, went fast, moved as though on ice through convolutions of his own invention, through spirals that could not be anticipated and could not be stopped; he was fluent, exhilarated, alight.

It’s pretty, though chilly, writing, but it leaves one uninvolved, and one of the fiction writer’s highest goals should be to involve the reader as much as possible. Except for Tom, and then not all the time, McKeon’s understatement left me unable to connect with this novel, unable to work up much caring one way or the other about things even though I really wanted to care. Sometimes raw emotion – even sentimentality – is a good thing. One just needs to use it sparingly.

McKeon does have a wonderful gift for description. Her snapshots of rural Irish life in County Longford are both charming and intoxicating:

It had been a beautiful summer’s evening. It had been hard to want to be anywhere else, looking out at the meadows stretching golden against the sunset, and at the small lake beyond them, and at the bruised blue and grey of the hills on the horizon.

And lest the reader forget that this is Ireland in crisis, in the midst of a financial meltdown:

Inside those houses on those hills were people, and people made everything difficult; tripped over one another and tripped one another up.

While the romance between Mark and Joanne felt inauthentic, and therefore failed to move me, I was moved by McKeon’s images of life in rural Ireland. For example, a frosted tractor window that looks like it’s not “one pane of glass but a thousand tiny chips, held together for one last moment within the square of the frame,” could also be a metaphor for the fragile depiction of human relationships and human life found in this book. It was a beautiful image and one I won’t forget. I was also moved by Maura Casey as she regards the sexual adventures of the young “with a mixture of envy and exhaustion.” Now that’s real humor. Gentle humor. Grown up humor as opposed to Mark’s cruder expressions, which I didn’t enjoy at all.

McKeon balances character and plot well, but in the end, I just didn’t think there was enough plot in this book – no more than what’s on the flyleaf, really – to sustain a whole novel, and I’m a person who greatly prefers character driven novels. I think Solace might have worked better as a longer short story, about the length of Claire Keegan’s beautiful and moving Foster. I’ll definitely take a look at anything else McKeon writes, however, but though I tried, this book really didn’t quite do it for me.

3/5 (The three stars are mostly for the character of Tom Casey.)

Recommended: If you like Marilynne Robinson, you will probably like this book as well.

Note: Belinda McKeon was born in Ireland in 1979 and grew up on a farm in Co. Longford. She studied English and Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin (BA) and University College, Dublin (MLitt). She's married and lives in Brooklyn, New York and in Ireland.

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