Book Review: ‘Solar’ by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan never fails to impress his reader by the sheer volume of research he does for his novels. In ‘Saturday’ we get a frighteningly detailed account of what it is like to be a brain surgeon; in ‘Atonement’ McEwan encapsulates the Second World War for his reader by taking them on a detailed journey of his research and deep knowledge of the period. 

And ‘Solar’ is no exception to this trend. By the end of this novel your brain has been filled with so many facts and ideas about science and climate change you actually feel rather withered.

Solar is about a scientist called Michael Beard. He is a fat, balding womaniser who has been married five times, won a Nobel Prize many years before the period of his life the novel focuses on, and seems to be dismally living off his past successes, either too lazy or empty to be coming up with anything new.

You follow Beard during a pivotal time in his life, as another of his marriages crumbles under his selfish behaviour and his professional life takes an unexpectedly, and not completely deservedly, lucky turn.

It’s a strange novel to read, as the main character, Beard, who you follow throughout, seems completely unlikable and yet you find yourself totally attached to him. In fact, just as is often the case in real life, the more you get to know about this character, the more you start to dislike him.

And, particularly as you draw to the end of the book, and Beard becomes increasingly fat, self-absorbed and self-righteous, you almost start to feel that McEwan doesn’t want you to miss reading about this man’s life once you have put the book down for the final time. He makes every effort to ensure the reader is left with almost no endearing qualities to remember Beard by.

In many ways it is a sad book, about quite a sad man’s life. But it is also funny. And one of the main reasons it is funny is because McEwan manages to convey to the reader, through Beard, that although his main character is leading a somewhat lonely and depressing existence, he is able to look at things and people around him and see the funny side of it all.

It’s satirical, almost a black comedy, you see the clumsiness and ridiculousness of humans and the ways we behave. You see through McEwan’s, or Beard’s observations, that in many ways we are all doomed because of our own stupidity, but this stupidity in itself is actually rather funny.

The ending of the book is particularly unusual, but it also makes sense. I don’t want to give too much away here and spoil it for anyone thinking of giving the novel a try, but it does tie everything, quite loosely together. If you’re looking for a happy ending, this isn’t the book for you. It is more a realistic comeuppance after a 60-something year old man has been selfishly living his life in whatever way he chooses without a huge degree of thought for anyone else for years on end.

It’s not my favourite McEwan novel. I preferred the pace of Saturday, or the tension and characterisation of Atonement, and even Enduring Love had a certain page-turning quality to it which I never felt to be as much the case with Solar.

However it is worth the read. It is a quality novel, just like McEwan’s others are. You learn a lot from Solar, and you feel after finishing the final page that it has been worthy of your time. But I am also left with a sneaking suspicion that it is a book I will quite quickly start to forget, as soon as I have read something else which really shakes, amuses or inspires me.

By Sophie Hudson

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