I wonder if Ian McEwan has done his twelfth novel a disservice by calling it a ‘climate change novel’? It raises the stakes too high, creates the expectation of some startling insight into climate change itself – when it’s unlikely a novel can do such a thing.
I read Solar more as an amusing drama, a better version of his worst novel, Amsterdam. It’s the story of the downfall of Nobel Prize winning scientist, Michael Beard, who has done very little since he won his prize. We get three snapshots of his life in 2000, 2005 and 2009 and it’s McEwan’s skill to capture the passage of years, the shifts in time and world events. Beard is incapable of fidelity and in 2000 his fifth marriage is breaking up. In one of those McEwanian moments, a random and fatal accident suffered by one of Beard’s colleagues gives him a chance at revenge, cover-up and the stealing of valuable scientific secrets, that by the end of the novel he is developing into a lucrative alternative form of solar power.
Michael Beard is an anti-hero who reminds of Rabbit Angstrom, John Updike’s character. John Updike is one of McEwan’s favourite writers, and like Rabbit, Michael can’t control his appetite for food or women or his pettiness. In the vein of the Rabbit books, Beard gives the pulse of the time at spaced intervals; the main difference between them is that Rabbit is a car salesman while Beard is a scientist who was at least once something of a genius.
For me the novel had many moments of McEwan’s strength – startling insight into the moods and thinking of a person. I read the climate change aspect as simply a background for the exploration of an unlikeable but believable and engaging man’s downfall. Yet then on last night’s Bookclub show on ABC, Jennifer Byrne pointed out the obvious reading that I missed. It is a climate change novel because Beard represents us all, too greedy and carnal to prevent the disaster looming over us. Climate change is not just a background; it’s built allegorically into the novel.
A lot of critics have reviewed Solar poorly, but as a McEwan fan, I enjoyed it. 7.5/10.