All That Is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon
I don't know how to review this book. I don't know how many stars to give it. There is a certain beauty and artistry to the writing and the writing style that I can't deny. It is understated and leaves much for the reader to read between the lines. In fact, this book is a perfect example for burgeoning writers of how to show the reader rather than tell the reader. But I think that was my problem with the book. It was too understated for my tastes. I didn't want to think so hard about meanings and reasons for choosing a storyline or character, the common thread throughout the character's lives. I needed some telling. For instance, the conversations Maria had with Pavel were all very incomplete and unsatisfactory for me. What was with the cats? Why watch a movie without the sound? I didn't even have conclusions to draw because I didn't understand their meaning.
I used to have a great fascination with Russia and the Cold War. I grew up in that era. I understood the KGB could imprison for the smallest violations or inferences. So it was not surprising what Maria was blackmailed over. Yet it was so anticlimactic. In fact, most of the building to an end was anticlimactic for me. All but one character, although it was anticlimactic that he went with the thugs instead of going home. Why? How did that make him great? Yet the scene at the piano was touching and powerful.
So we have four main characters. Since their names are foreign, I won't use them except the ones I know. The book begins and ends with Maria. She misses her husband Griggory, a heart surgeon. It is 2011 and the weeks of the conflict for all of the characters is 25 years passed. Maria was a spunky young woman who sacrificed herself to save others from her indiscretions. She is now working in a factory job that requires no brain power. She lives with her sister and nephew, a prodigy. They are barely scraping by with both women working two jobs. She misses Griggory and did not tell him the truth. Whatever the truth is which is eventually revealed.
There is a 14 year old boy outside of Pipyat which is near Chernobyl. Through him, we experience the radiation fall out. What the air looked like, how it smelled, tasted, what happened to the people, the animals, the landscape, and his own family.
There is an 11 year old boy who is a piano prodigy. But he is poor and lacks resources. His only hope is to get a scholarship into the conservatory. At this particular moment in time, he is wavering on who he wants to be. He a boy who has to grow up too quickly, surrounded by both goodness and cruelty. He gives a brief introduction of the realities of life in the city where the government is corrupt.
Last is Griggory, a gifted surgeon whom is conscripted to clean up the Chernobyl mess. He is brilliant yet compassionate. The compassion is what brings him to the attention of many. He misses Maria and still questions what happened. He is the medical voice that describes the horrors of the radiation poisoning on the general population. He is also the jaded comrade who quickly loses his love for government he has always served. He reveals the bureaucracy that is pointless and harmful to helping the people. The haves and the have nots.
Bottom line is that the book is beautifully written but I didn't like it. I struggled to get to the end. The near end was a near payoff for a scene with a piano but I simply lacked the attention and appreciation for the detail and the understated references.