Darragh McKeon’s debut novel, as both an account of the Chernobyl disaster’s human toll and a portrait of Soviet Russia’s collapse, concerns itself with decay. As the familiar falls away, what’s concealed beneath is difficult to confront.
All That Is Solid Melts into Air* follows four characters. First, we meet Yevgeni, a nine-year-old piano prodigy mercilessly bullied by his peers. Yevgeni’s fingers are forced to hover over the keyboard — the family can’t afford a piano — in the tiny Moscow apartment he shares with his mother and aunt, because the neighbors can’t stand the “noise.”
His aunt, Maria, was once a writer who clandestinely circulated news of Poland’s Solidarity movement; revealed as a dissident, she now works at a factory, making car parts and wondering if all hope for reform is lost. She is wholly devoted to Yevgeni and loves her sister dearly, though the two struggle with tension stemming from their deceased father’s awful past.
Maria’s estranged husband, Grigory, is one of Moscow’s most promising surgeons when he’s called away on an urgent — and secret — matter: to advise the Soviet officials presiding over the Chernobyl disaster. Outraged by the combination of blindness and cowardice he finds, Grigory attempts to protect refugees and residents of areas near the accident site, only to find himself swiftly deprived of authority. Instead of returning to Moscow, he stays in the displacement camps, operating on children who’ve suddenly developed thyroid cancer and witnessing firsthand the devastation radiation inflicts on the human body.
One of Grigory’s patients is Artyom, a teenage peasant who’s the first in his village to notice that something is terribly wrong: the cows are bleeding from their ears. It’s only the beginning of a hellish journey for Artyom, his parents, and his sister. Betrayed by the Soviet system, counted as expendables, the family is one of thousands who lose everything. Artyom is the only major character in the story who seems to fade from view — just like the people whose stories his is drawn from.
Mr. McKeon’s prose is careful, eschewing the sensational in favor of measured, occasionally lyrical depictions of everyday life in Moscow and Artyom’s village near the Chernobyl plant. The plight of people affected by the disaster, crushed under weight of Soviet indifference and forced invisibility runs parallel to the plight of ordinary citizens of Moscow, miles away, just as crushed by a system that breathes fear and breeds violence.
Only three years from the fall of the Berlin Wall, even would-be dissidents are more than cautious. Maria tells a friend, “Sometimes I hear these words, ‘glasnost,’ ‘perestroika,’ and they sound to me like the final breaths of an empire” — only to hear her friend remind her of dashed hopes thirty years before: “So we went back to doing what we do so well: watching, deluding ourselves with fragile hopes, with an occasional moment of grace or luck; holding on to these things as omens. Hoping ourselves into inaction. Perhaps in a year we’ll be shot for daring to tell a stupid chicken-farmer joke” (255).
Ultimately, All That Is Solid Melts into Air is Grigory’s story. He’s the hub of the novel’s spoking plotlines, intimately involved in the tragic aftermath of Chernobyl. Like Maria in Moscow, who lives in drudgery to help her nephew escape the same fate, Grigory finds in Artyom a child who helps him keep his hold on hope. He drifts, doing all the good in his power even though he knows it will never, ever be enough:
During these nights, he gazes at them in their cots. Nothing so unimaginable that it cannot be true, this is what he things, beauty and ugliness resting within the single body of a diseased infant, the two faces of nature brought into stark relief.
No officials have made their way here, despite his daily entreaties. He wants them to walk into this room, a place where ideology, political systems, hierarchy, dogma, are relegated to mere words, belonging to files, banished to some dusty office. There is no system of belief that can account for this. The medical staff know that, in comparison, nothing that has gone before in their lives has any significance. There are only these months, these rooms, these people. (198)
Decay is inevitable, surely. All That is Solid Melts into Air offers the consolations of memory and witness.
Coming Soon: An Interview with Darragh McKeon, author of All That Is Solid Melts into Air
* I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.