It is always a joy to open a new McEwan novel. I remember the wonderful shock of my first encounter with his work - The Cement Garden - and what a thrill it was to explore the more sinister, often subconscious, corners of the human mind through his characters. What McEwan captures more poignantly than any other writer I know is that moment of transition when good or innocent intentions turn into dire consequences. All the novels I have read by him either have a literal corpse or a more metaphorical one in the form of a dying or ruined human relationship at their core. It is a fitting image for that morbid element of human nature which is responsible for the transition I spoke about above. McEwan's characters are mostly not bad people, but they usually manage to do really bad things, and scarily enough one can always follow, often even sympathise with, the reasoning they employ in achieving them.McEwan's latest, Solar, has a fascinating main character in this respect. When we are first introduced to Michael Beard, a Nobel Prize laureate in physics, for quite a while he has been living mainly off his reputation only: "He had no new ideas." Hardly paying any attention to the professional responsibilities he takes on (attracting funding for institutions, giving lectures all over the world for outrageous fees, and lending his name in support of new scientific developments), his greatest concern is the affair his fifth wife is having with their former builder. The betrayal comes as a surprise to the notorious womaniser and suddenly makes him long for his wife: "These days, desire for Patrice came on to him out of nowhere, like an attack of stomach cramp."
He is so obsessed with winning her back that he completely ignores a young post-doc student trying to attract his attention to a revolutionary idea he has developed to counter the threat of climate change which is endangering the planet. Then through a series of startling events and with the help of his opportunistic nature Beard manoeuvres himself into a position where he can take revenge on his wife and her lover, make a fortune, and actually almost single-handedly save Mother Earth from doom.
But any kind of change comes at a high price. As McEwan pointed out in an interview, the theme of climate change is inseparable from human nature: one has to address both simultaneously. So we follow Beard's cunning plan for saving the planet while we also witness as his greed and inability to stick to any of his resolutions gradually puts him beyond any possible redemption. With his delusional nature, self-pity, arrogance and selfishness, Beard will be familiar to many of us, even if at times it is hard to admit.
McEwan weaves a healthy dose of what he calls "forgiving humour" into this wonderful parable for our day and age of senseless consumption. While forcing you to think seriously about the circumstances we live in and making you want to cry for the lost cause which human nature seems to be, Solar actually makes you laugh out loud every few pages. Some of its episodes - like Beard's excursion to the North Pole, his train journey with a young man who devours his snack, or his wooing of his first wife - are truly priceless. Solar is another great accomplishment from the author of such modern classic as The Cement Garden, Enduring Love and Atonement.
by Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape, 2010