Nobody recommended “Solace” by Belinda McKeon to me at all nor did I ever hear anyone talking about it. I picked it up from the bookcase at home. What a find it has proven to be!
The novel describes the spiritual dissonance experienced by young people who have left their family farms in the Irish countryside to live in the “big smoke” (Dublin). After graduation, these young people live a frenetic, chaotic life-style bingeing on alcohol, drugs and sex at the weekends while performing as young professionals during the week.
Nonetheless when Mark meets Joanne, it is the fact that both come from family farms in Longford that allows an intimate relationship to develop quickly. Both young people have difficult relationships with their parents but Mark continues to help his father Tom on the farm from time to time at weekends. The contrast between the two men could not be starker. Tom is an old-style, reserved, Irish farmer whose whole world-view is circumscribed by the land. Mark is writing a doctoral thesis at Trinity College in Dublin. His thesis concerns a famous female novelist of the previous century who lived in the same area of fertile farmland.
Many Cambodian factory workers and students experience a similar dichotomy between their professional life in Phnom Penh and that of their former rural life in the Cambodian countryside.
In the novel, it is the stormy relationship between Mark and Tom, rather than between Mark and Joanne which provides the back-bone of the novel. While the hedonic life-style of both Mark and Joanne at first mirrors the life-style of the characters in Sally Rooney’s novel “Ordinary People”, the concern of Joanne for the exploited Mrs. Lefroy and the sporadic commitment of Mark to work on the farm marks the two characters in this novel, as more authentic and real than first appears. Mark’s mother, Maura understands both her husband and her son and like many Irish mothers, she acts as the go-between to facilitate their difficult communication.
This novel has two striking and unusual turning points. When Joanne finds to her horror that she has somehow become pregnant, she makes the extraordinary decision not to abort the baby even though she is just starting out on her legal career. Mark is so relieved. The two of them have fallen in love with each other despite the chaos around them and have somehow kept an inner freedom to recognize this truth and accept their baby. Aoife enters the world. Her world in anything but stable and secure but she is loved.
The next turning point comes after Tom and Maura have reluctantly accepted the unexpected arrival of a grand-daughter and by extension an unofficial daughter-in-law. As the family seems to be moving towards a peaceful compromise, disaster strikes in the form of a traffic accident. To be honest, this accident arrived so suddenly eliminating two of the main characters in the story so violently, that I felt cheated and angry. I wanted to throw the novel into the dust-bin. However after I calmed down, I decided that sometimes life does not turn out as we expect, so I should give the story-teller the benefit of the doubt.
Now it is Mark’s turn to make a surprising decision. He refuses to let other people raise Aoife. He will do it himself. Step by step, he learns how to do it. Now the whole point of the novel comes into focus. This is a story of two Irish men who cannot communicate because they do not understand their own feelings. Like many other Irish men, they have always relied on their mothers, wives, sisters, grand-mothers, aunts or nieces to take care of them and communicate on their behalf. Neither Mark nor Tom can cope with their grief. Mark nearly loses his sanity by concentrating on his thesis and Tom nearly loses his farm by forgetting to care for his cattle.
In an ironic twist, it is tiny, stubborn, feisty little Aoife who can only speak three words who becomes the focus of solace. She insists on attention to her life pulling both men back into relationship with her and with each other. While Aoife rages at Tom late at night in the farm-house, the friendly silence of the cattle in the neighbour’s shed enable Mark to come home to her and Tom. Aoife saves them both from permanent grief. She brings them back to life.
While Mark and Joanne have explicitly rejected any religious belief or practice even at Christmas, Mark recalls at one point a legend that he heard about St. Mel during his schooldays. When St. Mel was consecrating St. Brigid as Abbess, he used the wrong prayer. Instead of ordaining her Abbess, Sr. Mel mistakenly ordained St. Brigid a Bishop.
Solace is a robust, unsentimental portrait of a modern Irish couple whose values may have no religious content as such but who become “other-centred” and authentic on their life journey. In this sense, the characters become mature adults and cease to behave as self-indulgent adolescents. In this way Belinda McKeon’s “Solace” seems to me to be a deeper and more reflective novel than Sally Rooney’s “Ordinary People”.