Friday, 22 November 2013


Solace - Belinda McKeown

Solace is a beautifully crafted book, reminiscent in its way of the work of John McGahern. Character and place are carefully and convincingly delineated, as if they really mattered.

The story: Mark, who is (fitfully) writing a PHD on Maria Edgeworth in Trinity College meets Joanne, a trainee solicitor who like Mark is from the environs of Edgeworthstown in rural Longford. They get together and quickly and unexpectedly have a child on the way. Mark's father Tom and Joanne's (deceased) father were on both sides of a feud to do with property so the relationship is not popular with Tom.

Tom is a small farmer and wants Mark to spend more time on the farm which causes a different kind of tension between father and son. Communication is usually moderated by Tom's wife/Mark's mother Maura. Joanne has an uneasy relationship with her own mother and siblings and despite having fallen out with her father before he died, she was left a house in Dublin in his will. Any more would start to give away too much.

It all felt quite personal to me - The couple start their lives as parents in a house in Stoneybatter which is where my own adventure in fatherhood began. I also went to Trinity and frequented many of the bars featured. The Dublin presented here is a familiar and very convincing one.

However, I don't think that you would need any of these contact points to appreciate this tender portrait of loss and the difficulties of communication, particularly between father and son. Right from the start we are made aware of these difficulties. We are told that father and son are spending more time together than is usual- "it had been years since Tom's son had spent so long at home." We also find out that the son is a bit of a mystery to the father, and that their communication is more by intuition than by open discussion - "too much flickered across Mark's face these days for Tom to understand him."

In the Prologue the two men are alone with Mark's young daughter. We are not told the full story of why this is so until later on in the book. Instead we go back to find out how Mark and Joanne met. Joanne is on a work placement with a firm of solicitors who are involved in a mother/son dispute over his use of a mews property she gave him. Stories within stories refer to each other, with the themes of home, property, inter-generational conflict and communication repeated in them all.

Mark has run out of enthusiasm for his PhD. and, instead of working to meet a deadline, he is out taking drink and drugs. In the back of his mind is the fear that he will lose his funding and end up completely at a loose end. Instead of facing up to his fears he has another drink, and then another... Joanne is general dogsbody in the solicitor's office where she is doing her work placement. She dislikes their client, the  son, and even lies impulsively in a way that might help the old woman.

When they meet she recognises Mark as a near neighbour from Longford but he doesn't recognise her straight off. However he is attracted to her and they messily fall into a relationship which becomes a lot more serious when they discover that Joanne is pregnant.

As well as promising the next chapter of his PhD to his supervisor, Mark is also constantly been asked when he will be home and makes various excuses as to why he can't make it down. Joanne is following in the footsteps of her father in terms of being a solicitor but she had a falling out with him before he died and now she refuses to use his name to get ahead, saying that "her father had been a schoolteacher" when interviewed for her work experience.

Both Mark and Joanne are struggling to find an acceptance of their past and a path into the future. Tom is finding the present a challenge. His life of absolute certainty is disintegrating. The divide between the certainty of Tom's worldview and the contingency of his son's appears as a gulf between them. However they both need each other and at times it is this need that helps both deal with the tragedy at the heart of the book.

There is also some interesting tensions in the writing of the book. Although very much a realist novel there are touches of the self referential  about the subject of Mark's PhD in particular. Edgeworth is named both as an experimental writer and as a possible influence on Turgenev.  However, Mark seems  to be just as interested in the fact that Edgeworth came from his home place and in the nineteenth century celebrity gossip concerning her and some famous contemporaries. (Mark comments that among others she knew Virginia Woolf who wasn't born until long after Edgeworth died).

Showy demonstrations of education are always undercut by the ephemera of life. PhD's, we are told, write "books without story lines, papers without news." The answers are not always to be found in knowledge. Consolation can be a lot more ephemeral and unexpected and various - the wind in your face or the ache of tired muscles. It is as if McKeown is always pushing a little bit more of the real into the story while never pretending it is not a shaped fiction. This Louis MacNiece poem quoted in the book seems to state something of how the book negotiates the gap between reflexive fiction and realism:

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was 
Spawning snow and pink roses against it 
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible: 
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think, 
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion 
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel 
The drunkenness of things being various. 

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world 
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes - 
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands - 
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses."

Solace tries to be true to the incorrigible plurality of life. And though at times I wished that there were more of the extravagance represented in Tom's last ditch attempt to reunite the father/son team (you'll have to read the book). In the end I was impressed by the quiet authority and I look forward to seeing how McKeown follows it.

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