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Review: Solar by Ian McEwan

Oh, where is Hard Drive? 😦

After this morning’s super quick, almost non-sensical post, here I am again bashing out a really quick review on a snatched laptop moment before sleep.  It’s a good thing that blogging has taught me how to write quickly: just write, don’t worry about it, getting it down is the most important thing.

When I left my blog last, I’d got about a third of the way through Ian McEwan’s Solar and was feeling a bit iffy about it.  Well, a lot can change in the last two thirds of a book!

The book is about physicist Michael Beard, his disastrous personal life and his attempts to save the planet by inventing “clean” energy.  It is divided into three sections and the first, set in 2000, is very full on, a la Martin Amis.  Beard comes across as a bit of a caricature and it’s difficult to believe that anyone would actually be that crass.  What I also found quite difficult is the strength of repulsion that his description and actions evoked in me.  I wouldn’t stop reading a book for that reason, but I did find that I wasn’t dying to pick it up again after I’d put it down.  On the plus side, this section had a certain manic energy that kept me skimming through, and a rich background  of description to enjoy, ranging from the mundane commute, strangely touching in its flat familiarity, to a starkly descried accident in the Arctic, which I found wince inducing, and I don’t even have those bits of anatomy to identify with.

Move on 5 years and Beard’s social ineptness leads to some professional scrapes.  I was very impressed with the way McEwan described the politics of the scientific and academic communities, and also very appreciative of his portrayal of Beard’s scientific mind.  Too often in novels, the scientific way of thinking is not explored and as I got further into this section, I really appreciated the skill with which McEwan explored Beard’s character through the way he thinks – logically, but with no sense of social awareness, a sense of other people as beings with no emotions, but also, in an Emperor’s New Clothes way, Beard’s thoughts unconsciously exposed the hysteria and ‘crowd pressure’ that power the way society works.

Another 5 years and Beard, once the serial ex-husband, is now the subject of the affections of not one, but two quite sorted, organised women, who are both realistic about their reasons for desiring him.  There’s a whiff of the “other Ian McEwan”, of Atonement and Chesil Beach fame as he delves into Beard’s past and his coming of age.  Again, astonishingly skilful to present a character so consistently that his younger self, while obviously different, retains the same traits that evolve to make him the person he eventually ecomes.

But strands of Beard’s past life come back to haunt him and the brilliant plotting means that they all come together with perfect pacing.  The more you read this book, the more you realise how the different layers of character, the gradually building up of past are making you want to read on.  I thought the very last sentence was perfect!

An interesting point in the reviews I read about Solar was that some people found the plot unrealistic. It’s true that the chain of events that would happen would be unlikely to occur to, say, your next door neighbour, or even to most people that you or I know in our lives.  And sometimes, I do get very annoyed by a book that I think is “unrealistic”.  But I think this was perfect for me because all the end events were consequences that rebounded onto Beard from his earlier life.  And I found that an extraordinary part of the book’s concept: on the one hand, it was about saving the world, about how we behave as a society (which is to say, benignly in our own interests, but collectively, ultimately disastrously), but on the other, it was intensely wrapped up in the details of one man’s life, his history, the effects he had on others, his meaning and his ultimate meaninglessness.

Ranging from the absolutely huge, to the minute.  Which is very scientific.  From the sublime to the ridiculous.



    • It was.  I was encouraged to carry on by Jenny’s enjoyment of it and found my appreciation unexpectedly blooming!


  1. Wow, I really need to read Ian McEwan. I have Atonement – it’s been sitting on my shelf for now 3 years I think. Your review has inspired me to crack it open sooner rather than later!

    • Solar was so well written and put together – and the range that Ian McEwan can write is very impressive.  Atonement is very different again, but all his books have a strong sense of atmosphere.


    • Will be on the lookout! He is so talented and so able to move from magical subtle to broad slapstick all to the same end.

  2. I’ve enjoyed McEwan very much in the past, but I am slow to pick up his novels. I’m intrigued by this one, because I’m intrigued by the academic/scientific dimension, particularly if it’s well done. I know what you mean about the ‘unrealistic’ tag. What may be unrealistic in MY life might not be unrealistic at all in relation to the character’s situation. I am a strong believer in judging the book on its own terms – and it sound like it does very well then.

    • I have to admit I skim read some of the heavy sciency bits! But it was so well done. I know very little of this field but it felt so authoritative and convincing – here was someone who lived, breathed, thought, threw away all in the language of science and I think it’s the last that really convinces in a voice – when we can see what it is about their background/training that moves them to deride or despair of something.

  3. kateatthekeyboard

    Great review! I will have to give this one a read as I think it’s sitting on a shelf somewhere in our living room. Saturday is the only one of his I’ve read and not really enjoyed but I think it might have been due to the way I read it – a few pages at a time in moments snatched here and there – which made it feel like it dragged on and on for such a short book. Most of his others I’ve really liked and the science element of this one sounds particularly interesting.

    • I’ve not read Saturday. I think you are right – if I had read Solar in lots of different goes, I don’t think I would have been so into it. The main character has a distinctive way of thinking that it takes a while to be absorbed into.

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