Sunday, 10 July 2011

No longer quite at home

In this outstanding debut novel, Belinda McKeon tells the very simple story of half-hearted PhD student Mark, divided between his life in Dublin and his father Tom's wish for him to work on the family farm near Edgesworthtown in Longford, and his love affair with trainee solicitor Joanne, who shares the same roots. However basic this subject matter may seem, I found it absolutely gripping. It is McKeon's sure command of language that makes these characters and their choices real; her style is also simple, but surprisingly assured for a first novel, even a good first novel, and I knew from the first few sentences that I was going to enjoy it. Her voice puts me in mind of a younger Marilynne Robinson or - unsurprisingly given his praise on the cover - Colm Toibin.

McKeon places the importance of `home' front and centre in this story, but rather than just rehearsing the familiar theme of the importance of where we come from and what we were, she raises the more problematic possibility that we may need to both break away from home and retain it in equal measure. This is most clearly shown in the conflict between Mark and Tom, as neither man can be said to be fully in the right. Tom cannot understand - as is obvious when he and Mark discuss the career of a friend's son, a software engineer, who also lives in Dublin - why anyone would need to move away from his immediate locality, and he believes that Mark need only spend a few days a month in Dublin to teach. Meanwhile, Mark fails in both worlds as he tries to keep a foot in each, managing to write only two chapters of his thesis - which, ironically, is on local celebrity Maria Edgeworth - in three years, and disappointing his father by only coming to the farm on weekends.

However, other characters also struggle with, and try to solve, this question in differing ways; Joanne breaks completely with her crooked lawyer father, despite his pride that she is the only child to follow in his footsteps, which contrasts interestingly with Mark's closer relationship with his father despite a very different choice of career. A subplot concerning one of Joanne's court cases, between a mother, Elizabeth, and her son, also highlights this theme. It is Elizabeth's daughter, Antonia, who now lives in New York, who fully recognises the tension between one person's concept of home and family and another's; she tells Joanne that her mother considers her to be `estranged', despite the fact that they are in regular contact, because she no longer lives with her. Mark's older sister, Nuala, seems to have achieved the perfect balance, as Tom sorrowfully describes: she moves to London, `coming home to see them only once or twice a year,' although she phones often, and `when she visited, he seemed never to have a conversation with her that lasted longer than their conversations on the phone. Always, she seemed only in the door with her suitcase... before she was heading off with the cases again'. Yet, later in the novel, Nuala's decision to limit her contact with her parents is one she regrets.

McKeon gently reveals these shifts, misunderstandings and unmet expectations in our dealings with other people through her use of switching third-person points of view, juxtaposing one character's inner monologue with another's. On an early date, Joanne anticipates the way Mark will react when she tells him a story about her annoying colleague, how he will take her side, but in the event he is too busy watching her hand gestures to listen to what she is saying. Mark continually anticipates the way Tom will react to certain statements and even plans comments that he thinks will please him, but his father stubbornly refuses to behave in the way that he expects. When they have one of their most serious arguments, McKeon takes it off-page and reveals what was said only in both characters' inner thoughts later; the importance of what passed is only magnified by its absence. Her avoidance of contemporary brand names or TV programmes also gives the novel a timeless quality, despite its obviously modern setting on the brink of the Irish recession, which lends it weight; Tom is puzzled by a miserable English soap, rather than Eastenders, and Joanne's aforementioned annoying colleague shows off the red soles on her shoes, rather than boasting about having a pair of Louboutins. In their own ways, both Tom and Mark are trapped in the past; Mark goes round in endless circles with Maria Edgeworth, while Tom still can't quite believe that Mark is no longer the little boy who was so keen to ride in his tractor, and eventually tries to appeal to that little boy, rather than the adult Mark has become.

While this novel has its tragic moments, it is ultimately well-titled; like Robinson's
Gilead, there is balm to be found in Solace for the failures and misunderstandings of everyday life. I very much recommend this, and I can't wait to see what McKeon writes next.


  1. Wonderful review, Laura. Thanks for letting me know about it.

    I wasn't keen on the subplot, but as you point out, it did help highlight the problems within families of how you break away from home to forge your own life without forgetting to pay respect to those who brought you up.

    I think she will definitely be a writer to watch. Apparently she is working on her second novel now.

  2. Thank you! Having read your review, it did make me reflect on the family subplot, and although I enjoyed it, I think you're right that it could be removed from the novel without much being lost. Will have to watch out for news of the next one...