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Book Review: Solar by Ian McEwan

Reading Ian McEwan’s Solar is at times a hard task. While you don’t necessarily need to understand the precise meaning of words such as photovalic it certainly helps. A rudimentary understanding of Einstein’s particle and matter theories wouldn’t go amiss either.

At other times, when the novel is focusing on the love life of central character - physics boffin Professor Michael Beard - it’s plain sailing. McEwan certainly knows how to capture middle-aged male angst. Soon enough five times married Beard is getting into even more relationship difficulties both home and abroad. ‘Complicated’ doesn’t come close.

Solar then is a rather odd blend of male mid-life crisis and A level science. While the libidinous Beard pursues a dream to convert the world to an alternative source of energy his personal life slowly crumbles. Genius in the lab, goofball at home. Thankfully McEwan’s portrayal of the character of Beard is strong enough to survive a narrative structure that sometimes feels less than watertight.

While it might score in terms of originality, the novel’s tripartite structure, representing three phases of the scientist’s always eventful life, means you can forget all about chapters; there are none. Finding a suitable place to stop and switch out the bedside lamp thus becomes a much weightier decision that it ought to be.

Bearing testimony to Beard’s unravelling is sheer schadenfreude. After all, as a character Beard is selfish, devious and entirely egocentric. Indeed there’s not that much to like about a man who philanders his way from one relationship to another while plagiarising the work of others. In Professor Michael Beard McEwan has certainly created a character about as morally dubious as they come. He needed to. For take away Beard and this novel really would be in trouble.

It’s in the area of plotting and in particular credible plotting that Solar starts to creak. An early trip to the frozen wilds of Antarctic does little to enhance plot or character, nor does a rather clunky ménage-a-trois plot involving Beard’s fifth wife, their builder and post-grad student. If these strands stretch credibility then Beard’s grand scheme to present his new energy source to the world in New Mexico is perhaps even harder to swallow. The ins and outs rather get lost somewhere in that Mexican heatwave.

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, this rather complex and not wholly believable plot is brought to a very quick conclusion in the space of a couple of pages. Ex-builder (free from prison after being framed by Beard for murder of post-grad – don’t ask) turns up in the dessert as do various lawyers, get-rich-quick snake oil salesmen and southern poor white trash trailer lovers. And it all gets a trifle far-fetched.

Even so it’s still a shock when the novel ends so abruptly. Having set up this grand anti-climax, and with Beard’s schemes falling in around him, it’s almost as if McEwan just got plain fed up of this book, wanted to end it as soon as he could.

The most successful parts of this novel are undoubtedly those dealing with the inner turbulence of mid-life angst. Such passages are pithy and well observed. Beard almost becomes human, no mean feat. It’s when ex-builders are framed for murdering lovers of ex-wife, when Professors think their penises have frozen off in the arctic, when new girlfriends get pregnant through trickery - It’s at these moments Solar loses much of its power.