Belinda McKeon's debut novel, Solace, begins right in the middle of things. Not in a fast-paced way, but slowly, with a sense of sadness and the implication that something has happened. We find Tom Casey, a farmer, and his adult son, Mark, baling hay together in vaguely companionable silence.
The tension between them emerges in full force though, when Tom takes Mark's child, Aoife, with him on an errand without telling Mark and returns to the farm to find him furious.
From this snapshot of what is to come, McKeon takes us back many months, to a disparate scene: Mark sitting in the garden of a pub in Dublin, pleasantly unable to remember whether he's had two or three pints. His greatest concern is the next chapter of his doctoral thesis. On the path from here to there, he meets and falls in love with Joanne Lynch, a lawyer-in-training whose father once feuded with Tom. He struggles with Tom’s expectations of him, and with his mother, Maura's efforts to mediate. Together, then separately, Joanne and Mark deal with the unexpectedly fast pace of their relationship and the responsibilities it brings. Each encounter delicately raises the question of whether the problems of parents are also their children's to bear, and vice versa.
Throughout Solace, McKeon’s gift for rendering characters is very clear. This talent may stem from her work as an award-wining playwright, but it translates exceedingly well into the novel form. Old and young, male and female, each character’s story and take on things is narrated with a rare sort of conviction and empathy. Their varying perspectives; the sometimes amusing, sometimes heartbreaking ironies of what one person knows but another does not, or of what they both get wrong, add great richness and realism to this story of contemporary Ireland.
– Sheila Langan
(326 pages / Scribner / $26.00)