Solar
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Solar

Ian McEwan

Michael Beard is a Nobel prize-winning physicist whose best work is behind him. A compulsive womaniser, Beard finds his fifth marriage floundering. But this time it is different: she is having the affair, and he is still in love with her. When Beard’s professional and personal worlds collide in a freak accident, an opportunity presents itself for Beard to extricate himself from his marital mess, reinvigorate his career and save the world from environmental disaster.

Ranging from the Arctic Circle to the deserts of New Mexico, this is a story of one man’s greed and self-deception; a darkly satirical novel showing human frailty struggling with the most pressing and complex problem of our time.

Review

I don’t remember the last time I read a novel as funny as this. A madcap romp from beginning to end, Solar, with its terrific set-pieces and delightfully outrageous humour, must be the treat of 2010.

Solar begins with Michael Beard, our lead character (and decided anti-hero) feeling rather poorly: ‘anhedonic’. Patrice, his fifth wife, has effectively left him by running off and having an affair – and for once, the tables are turned. Michael, an inveterate womaniser, has never had any qualms about his twentysomething mistresses across his five marriages (all mum’s fault, too, apparently), but this hurts, for he still loves her. And shouldn’t he be the one wrecking the marriage anyway? I venture that there hasn’t been a greater womaniser than Beard in world literature since Casanova. Has there ever been a greater jilted lover? I’m not sure, but the description of how Beard pretends that he too has had a lover in his room overnight (I shan’t spoil it for you) could have come straight from Fawlty Towers.

Beard, wilfully obese and almost always drunk, is a physicist by training, and has for rather a long time been living off the fame that he acquired through a Nobel Prize, awarded for research he conducted while still in his twenties. He is invited to conferences around the world, has been made an honorary fellow of several notable institutions, and makes himself available for government projects too, particularly if there’s a bob in it. The environment is becoming a hot topic (as it were), and soon there is a new research centre in operation to develop some practical measures to divert domestic energy sources away from fossil fuels etc. But Beard, although no particular denier, hasn’t really got any affinity with the politics (let alone the science) of global warming. He is simply a man who sniffs the wind and realises that being associated with all this is a good career move, particularly as he’s not doing any real hard science himself nowadays.

Enter, however, a young researcher in his employ, Tom Aldous, who acquiesces with his boss on a project involving wind turbines (unlikely to make any substantial difference, but achievable in the short term), but who is secretly, in his off-hours, working on a much more revolutionary project: to attempt to artificially replicate the conditions that have made life on earth possible, indeed to reverse-engineer photosynthesis in order to create an inexhaustible source of instant energy. If he should quietly disappear, however, and leave his papers behind, Beard might just have a real career on his hands again, not to mention an enormous business opportunity.

To reveal more would spoil all the fun! But in closing: is the serious circumstance that is global warming just a convenient backdrop for McEwan to play up the laughs of rampant egotism, greed and solipsism in one outsized individual? There is nothing redemptive about Beard certainly, but as an illustration of the human capacity to put self before all else, he stands for something of a warning. So to me, Solar is all about casting light: but yes, of the illuminating as well as the warming kind.

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