Darragh McKeon’s first novel, All That Is Solid Melts into Air
(2014), was a nominee for the Newcomer of the Year Award at the Irish Book Awards. Taking its title from Marx’s The Communist Manifesto
, this historical novel is about the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The story follows several people in the days leading up to the Chernobyl disaster and their fates in the subsequent fallout.
The novel opens in April 1986, and the first several chapters introduce the various characters and storylines. Yevgeni is a bullied, nine-year-old piano prodigy in Moscow. His mother is a laundress and his father died in Afghanistan. His aunt Maria is a part-time teacher and a full-time factory worker. Grigory Brovkin is a surgeon wrapping himself in work to avoid dealing with his failed marriage to Maria. Artyom is a thirteen-year-old country boy in Ukraine who wakes up to a blood-red sky and cows bleeding from their ears.
When Chernobyl melts down, everyone at the plant is in a state of shock because they never expected anything to go wrong. With radiation rising to deadly levels, workers find that the first aid room does not have medical supplies and the firefighters who arrive to contain the situation are not wearing hazmat or any other kind of protection from radioactive materials. By the time small fires are put out, men show signs of radiation sickness. Meanwhile, Grigory and other doctors at the hospital attend a debriefing, where the official government stance on Chernobyl is that everything is fine and under control. This is a blatant lie; the government scrambles to do something and Grigory and another doctor, Vasily, are reassigned to the nuclear disaster, even though neither one of them does emergency medicine. Refusal is not an option, so they go.
Once there, Grigory becomes aware of the full extent of the trouble—mainly stemming from the fact that no one understands just how bad the situation already is and will undoubtedly get. Unlike the Americans, who learned from nuclear mistakes and put safety measures in place, any attempts to do the same at Chernobyl had been met with threats of demotion or outright firing. To make matters worse, no one prepared for any eventual problems, and so there is not enough safe food, drink, or medicine. People in the danger zone are given a three-hour mandatory evacuation notice, including Artyom and his family. Each person is allowed one bag; anyone who refuses to cooperate will be arrested and his or her house burnt down. Pets are deemed contaminated and are shot on sight by soldiers. Very few men make it on the buses out, and Artyom’s father is separated from them.
The novel then skips to November 1986. Maria works in a factory while teaching English classes a couple of nights a week. Her supervisor is displeased and tells her that engineering instructors are more valuable than English instructors; he advises her to get a degree in engineering. Maria agrees because the alternative is likely unemployment. She resigns herself to giving up the only thing in her life that she finds interesting, replacing it with years of mind-numbing night classes during her little time off between her jobs, standing in food lines, and other commitments. She lives with her sister Alina and Yevgeni, who practices silently on his keyboard for his auditions for the Conservatory the next year. His skill at the piano is likely his way out of their poverty; he is under considerable pressure. Complicating the situation is the envy of other children who bully him mercilessly at school. Meanwhile, factory wages are going down while living costs keep rising.
Grigory is still at ground zero, trying to contact the Belarussian general secretary to warn him about the radioactive cloud over Minsk, but keeps getting disconnected. The Kremlin handed down orders to everyone from the KGB to local governments to suppress news reports of the Chernobyl disaster to prevent mass panic. He tries to contact people living in the danger zone, telling them to take preventative measures, but the KGB catches wind and stops him. Even a personal visit to Minsk is not enough to get the local authorities to act. As a doctor, he sees firsthand the decaying health of those dosed with radiation, especially children. Meanwhile, things back home worsen. Maria finds Vasily’s wife and offers her help. The KGB watches Vasily’s wife and children, and the hospital refuses to pay Vasily’s wages, even though he has been away working for the government for months.
Artyom and his family go to his aunt’s in Minsk, but she refuses to let them in because she is afraid of them and possible contamination. They relocate to a shelter. Artyom eventually meets Grigory when the doctor needs help nursing an injured dog. He finds his father dying in a hospital, having gotten radiation poisoning after being made to help clear contaminated land as a liquidator. Grigory befriends Artyom’s mother. He tells her some of what happened over the summer in the weeks after the disaster—the media blackouts, the deaths of the liquidators charged with burying contaminated material, the threats of arrest he narrowly avoided because he was too valuable a surgeon to lock up in an asylum. He eventually decides to go home and reunites with his ex-wife, whom he still loves and who still loves him.
Maria arranges a concert at her factory, with a nationally popular pianist and her nephew playing. It is a ruse for a union call to strike. However, Yevgeni has been falling off—not attending practices, he develops timing issues. He also picks up a job as a messenger for a seedy character so he can save money. The night of the concert arrives, and he does not go home but stays with his gang. That night, there is a riot in the city, and he goes to his piano teacher’s house instead. Missing the concert probably saves his life, as the union strike fails. He must make a choice: music or a life of crime.
He chooses music. The last chapter is set in April 2011. Yevgeni returns home to Moscow on a music tour. He went to the Conservatory after all. His mother remarries. Grigory is dead from suicide. Years later Yevgeni finds boxes of evidence about the disaster that Grigory left.
At the back of the book is an original essay by McKeon about the Chernobyl disaster.