Away from the Man Booker again as the last three titles are still not available.
So now to a new author, a debut novel: All That is Solid Melts into Air. This astonishingly accomplished novel is set in Russia, beginning in April 1986.
There are no spoiler alerts here, all that I reveal here can be seen on the dust jacket, of which more later.
This is a love story blighted by fear and misunderstanding, it is a story of Chernobyl and of the Communist key-turner, Gorbachov. Although there are not many named characters in this book it is also the story of a whole nation. State suppression of facts meant that millions, literally millions of people were kept in the dark about the effects of radiation after the Chernobyl explosion. 1,321.67 miles away in England, on the other hand, the eating of mutton (or lamb) from any hill farm sheep growing in the North of England or in Wales was banned – this is the headline on the BBC News:
Restrictions on hundreds of Welsh and Cumbrian sheep farms dating back to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster have finally been lifted – 26 years on.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) said the controls were not “proportionate” to the “very low risk” and removing them would not compromise the consumer.
The disaster in 1986 affected 10,000 UK farms, including 334 in north Wales.
The movement of sheep was heavily restricted after the nuclear disaster.
Before farmers could sell livestock, the animals’ radiation levels had to be monitored. If they were above a certain level, the sheep were moved to another area and the levels had to subside before they could be sold and consumed.
So for those readers who were not born in 1986, what happened?
Previously, in March 1979, there had been a meltdown on the nuclear plant in Pennsylvania on Three Mile Island. The site supervisors quickly identified the fault, a stuck valve, and following the manual procedures for such an event shut down the plant. The environmental effects were, nevertheless, felt in an moderate increase in leukaemia, especially in men living within a ten mile radius of the plant over a number of years. Statistically, it is impossible to say exactly how many or what percentage of these cancers were caused by the accident, it is likely however, that a larger than usual number of cancers appeared in the affected population as compared to the rest of America.
In April 1986, a fire in the nuclear plant at Chernobyl got out of control and eventually the whole cover of the plant blew off sending a radioactive cloud over a huge swathe of Ukraine and all points West, to countries as much as fifteen hundred miles away. For several weeks it was impossible for the international governments to verify what had actually happened, the only evidence was atmospheric monitoring, firstly alerted in Scandinavia. In Russia, however, even in towns and cities less than two hundred miles away there was a blanket ban on information. The supervisors at Chernobyl nuclear plant turned to the pages of the manual, only to find that the instructions on what to do in the event of an accident had been blacked out. There could be no accident, this was State policy. Work out for yourself the effect on the local population.
Darragh McKeon has written with daring and clarity, a novel about people intimately involved in the disaster. Two boys, a young piano prodigy living in Moscow and Artyom, a young boy living in Belarus give the reader the teenage perspective on life in Communist Russia. The adults: the parents, aunts and teachers of these two, give us the other point from which to view these matters. State control leads to many things: unimaginable pressure from petty bureaucrats, employment punishments for the brave who speak out, or gulags for the dangerously dissident. These are all things we know about, but in this book we will experience them for ourselves.
There are times, and this is one, when I feel so blessed in having time, the capacity and the ability to read, and to read a lot. This new voice in fiction is here to stay, I am sure. The sweep and beauty of this writing will catch your heart, the story is daring and tragic, exhilarating and triumphant and Darragh McKeon holds it all together with a masterful brilliance. The author must have been about ten when the Chernobyl disaster occurred, it left its mark obviously.
Back to the dust jacket. Dust jacket design is really important here. The cover of the book shows a rural Russia basking in sunshine, the vivid green of the fields, sunlight glinting on the bulbous domes of a distant church, calm skies with maybe the hint of a storm brewing in the darker clouds in the distance. Put on the dust jacket, and the whole scene is covered in a grey blanket, whirling black flakes fall to the ground, even the title of the book seems to be about to vanish into air. Brilliant!