At 32, Belinda McKeon has to be one of the most-reviewed pre-launch debut novelists of recent times. The Irish Times journalist and playwright, who splits her home between Ireland and Brooklyn, US, is due to release Solace today (Friday 19 August) and if reviews and its success in the US are anything to go by, (it has been named a Kirkus Outstanding Debut of 2011 and has been nominated for the Newton First Book Award) the novel is likely to be sucked up by British and Irish literature-lovers with the same zeal as those across the Atlantic.
Set in Ireland between 2006-8, just before the economic slump, Solace balances a tale about family values and torn loyalties with a more down-to-earth state-of-the-nation depiction of Irish life, culture and economic fragility in contemporary times.
The tale centres on Trinity College PHD student Mark Casey’s tentative attempts to straddle the contradiction of living his own life in Dublin – a modern, city, student and laddish lifestyle, with the family-centric one desired by his parents – namely helping his ageing father Tom to manage the farm in countryside in quiet Longford at weekends.
As the story charts Mark’s falling for green-eyed trainee solicitor Joanne at a cocaine-fuelled flat party, her quickly-followed pregnancy means family tensions become even more strained when Mark’s father discovers Joanne is the daughter of his deceased morally bankrupt neighbour and nemesis. As the beautifully-described Aoife is born and Mark’s priorities, loyalties and responsibilities transform and are tested to their extremes, a catastrophic incident – hinted at from the beginning of the book and strung out in a brilliant suspense mechanism used by McKeon – leaves the characters discovering the true nature and meaning of family, and in particular, its connection to solace.
The word solace is a perfect encapsulation of the serenity the novel exudes, brought about by McKeon’s enchanting, alluring and intoxicating descriptions of Irish life, particularly in Longford, where the author herself grew up:
"It had been a beautiful summer’s evening. It had been hard to want to be anywhere else, looking out at the meadows stretching golden against the sunset, and at the small lake beyond them, and at the bruised blue and grey of the hills on the horizon."
Her novel is rich in social, cultural, economic and physical descriptions of her birth country, a compulsion McKeon said she finds hard to avoid: “I cannot say why, it is a very strong and natural pull for me to write about Ireland and I am becoming more interested in its future as I am away from it, she said. “Going to America, I was able to write about Ireland as I had the distance from it, I had perspective being so far away from it.”
While the married author herself has ample experience of the transition from country to city life, this is where the autobiographical comparisons of the novel end. McKeon said: “My parents were always very supportive of me finding my own way.” The inspiration behind the novel instead came from a snatched glimpse of an image on a cold New York night in December that was to nestle in her subconscious as a seed to grow seven years later into the completed Solace.
“It wasn’t a straight forward inspiration,” McKeon said. “I was out for Christmas one year and just glimpsed a young man outside a store holding a tiny baby. I spotted him and did not think anything of it. I sat down to write a couple of months later and this image turned up and that was Mark and Aoife. The image I had luckily in my mind, I didn’t know them, I just glimpsed them and that lodged.”
After she began writing the novel, McKeon studied for an MFA in creative writing from Columbia in the US to help her “hit deadlines” when it came to finishing chapters. “If I had remained in Ireland or Dublin it would have been a different novel – I wouldn’t have finished it,” she admitted.
However, while the story is rich in moral lessons in social conscience, family values, responsibility, loyalty and friendship, McKeon says she never sets out in her writing style with the direct intention to teach readers a lesson, instead feeling a story almost lives beyond her immediate control when it starts out.
“I want to get the novel written as well as I can write it and that is the priority. There is no moral or sociological intentions. Being faithful to the story and allowing it to tell itself –it was there I just had to tell it, she said. “A lot of writing happens at an unconscious level and you have to let it emerge. It is not about making a statement about society, although sometimes those things happen along the way - and I am quite happy when it does.”
McKeon harnesses much of her writing power in understatement and the un-said. The chemistry between Mark and Joanne is created in silences, internal thoughts, movements and stolen glances as much as conversation and interaction:
“’Anyway.’ She leaned towards him, suddenly, and he was startled – and then, all in the space of an instant, delighted, disbelieving, flattered and aroused – but she was just reaching past him to pick up the wine glass he’d put down.”
She describes an argument between Tom and Mark, not with direct speech, but as a sort-of mortal battle between feral beings: “Then he (Tom) went deep, went fast, moved as though on ice through convolutions of his own invention, through spirals that could not be anticipated and could not be stopped; he was fluent exhilarated, alight.”
While this tool is part of the beauty of the novel it is also its hindrance, making the story feel restrained and overly-tentative and self-consciously unsentimental in places where sentimentality felt necessary and required. Action parts of novel also could have been more exhilaratingly told. However, these are small criticisms of a powerful debut novel from someone who truly has the potential to become an Irish Literature Great.
For her next project, McKeon is writing a story about Irish immigrants and their experience of living in New York City, which at least from one fan, it is already eagerly anticipated.
Solace by Belinda McKeon is out today, published by Picador.
Picture courtesy of Hiroki Kobayashi.