Solar is the story of Michael Beard, a physicist and a philanderer. We enter his life in the year 2000 at the end of his fifth marriage which is failing because of his repeated affairs which have driven his wife Patrice into the arms of a builder. A former Nobel Prize-winner now gone to seed, Beard’s life is changed by an unexpected accident which solves one problem in his love-life and opens the door for him professionally. With his career invigorated, Beard is set to save the world from Global Warming if only he can look past his expanding belly and keep his complicated personal life from imploding.
The excellent character development in Solar, and the unsparing detail within the writing is exactly as I expect from Ian McEwan. The character of Michael Beard is at times loathsome, at others pitiable and the author’s treatment of him is brutal but also witty. He isn’t a protagonist that you want to succeed. He’s an anti-hero, who reminded me vaguely of Malcom Bradbury’s Howard Kirk in The History Man in his self-absorbed and egocentric outlook. I couldn’t empathise with him, but the thoroughness with which he is depicted has left a sort of stain on my mind – a very memorable creation!
The story itself does have a series of events, but it is definitely more of a chronicle of Beard’s personal journey. We follow him from his darkest days, through to a kind of new vigour and back again. Just as the world seems to be on a runaway path to destruction, Beard’s physical appearance and health is also decaying, his life held together by a lie as fragile as the Earths ecosystem is purported to be.
I enjoyed McEwan’s metaphors and the comments within the book that couldn’t help but be topical. At the beginning of the novel, Beard considers how each generation needs its own Armageddon. With the threat of the Cold War over, Climate Change may be our modern incarnation. Later, he gives a speech about motivating the masses to make changes to help the environment, commenting that it is not virtue that will move them, but self-interest and novelty; “Virtue is too passive, too narrow”.
Because of the subject that it deals with, Solar is fairly heavy in academic, science-related language. After all, Beard is a physicist, so we as a reader must share his science. At times this can make it a bit of a difficult read, even turgid in parts. I wouldn’t say that it is one of McEwan’s more ‘enjoyable’ books because the subject matter is so dark. However he does inject witty moments into the books to lighten it, such as when Beard experiences a particularly ‘sticky’ moment on a trip to the arctic (literally!). A few more doses of humour like these could have made the story flow a bit more.
Solar is a thought-provoking read – challenging in parts and funny in others. Overall it I found it a very interesting portrait of a man brilliant enough to change the world, but too corrupt to be its saviour.
7 out of 10
Have you read or plan to read Solar?