Review & Recommend: Solar - Ian McEwan

Solar – Ian McEwan: Review & Recommend | ELLIE LOVES

Includes spoilers

Being midway through the final year of my degree means only one thing: dissertation. Having chosen to do a creative writing dissertation instead of a traditional research dissertation, I’m reading a lot of novels. Specifically, I’m reading a lot of eco-fiction, or works that in some way address the climate crisis we find ourselves in. This is why I picked up Solar, after asking for it as a Christmas gift. My hopes for a novel centred around a physicist inventing new methods of carbon-neutral energy were fairly quickly dashed in the first few pages, and weren’t reignited. I was somewhat familiar with McEwan’s work, and I knew Solar was satire, but I still expected a bit more focus on the eco aspect of the book. As a result, it wasn’t really useful research for my dissertation, but it wasn’t unenjoyable.

The narrator, Professor Michael Beard, is a physicist, womaniser, and totally ambivalent towards climate science. At least, at the start of the novel. When we first meet him, he is in the middle of a relationship breakdown with his fifth wife. His failing relationship with her, and the affairs she’s having, are the central focus of part one of the book, set in 2000. I’m personally not a fan of entirely replacing chapters with longer ‘parts’, because I usually rely on regular chapter breaks to put the book down. The three parts this novel is split into are roughly 100 pages, and take place in 2000, 2005 and 2009 respectively. Beard’s changes through the book are in some way notable, and in others negligible. He doesn’t change his ways with women, if anything, he becomes even worse as the novel progresses, refusing to tell his long-term partner that he loves her. However, he does start to develop an interest in climate science, partly due to the accidental death of one of his wife’s lovers.

The style of the novel was interesting for me, because I haven’t read many satirical novels. The incident with Beard’s genitals on his trip to the Arctic (you definitely don’t want more details) confused me quite a bit. Generally, however, the writing style itself was enjoyable, fairly straightforward, and offered an interesting close-third person view of Beard. The novel also did a good job of portraying an objectively unlikeable protagonist and keeping the reader interested despite Beard’s personality. The treatment of women in the novel was pretty poor, though, with the combination of Beard’s constant mistreatment of his partners and the portrayal of the female characters. The female characters, when given time on the page, were also portrayed as cheaters or liars, or they had no personality at all and instead were just another woman for Beard to seduce. Even the other male characters were generally unlikeable, and I don’t think there was a single character in there that I wouldn’t cross the road to avoid.

I started to get a bit tired of the novel towards the end, because I still couldn’t really figure out what McEwan was trying to do or say. Beard didn’t have some kind of redemption arc particularly, though something akin to this was somewhat hinted towards right at the end. Nor did he seem to become interested in solar power for good reasons, rather because he was given someone else’s research, and saw an opportunity to become successful and famous. Throughout the book, the series of events that befall him do kind of make up for his reprehensible behaviour, with a series of setbacks both at work and in his relationships acting as karma. I think overall I’m glad the reader wasn’t supposed to like him by the end, though there were hints that he could possibly become a better person. After all the events of the book, I hated him too much to then have McEwan turn around and ask me to like him. As I said at the start, this wasn’t an unenjoyable book to read, but I certainly wouldn’t pick it up again. I’m also not sure I’d go out of my way to pick up another book by McEwan. I recognise his talent as a writer, certainly, and it’s nice to occasionally read something outside of my wheelhouse, but I’m not sure I want to read more of his work.

Rating: 3 stars.

This review also published on my goodreads,

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