by Ian McEwan

Solar follows the undoing of Michael Beard, a Nobel prize-winning physicist whose best days are long behind him. Beard follows his vanity, joining commissions and accepting directorships, all in the name of an easy life and his need to fuel his ego with all the concomitant kudos associated with these associations. His infantile craving for attention and admiration drives him to capitalise on others’ goodwill: Beard charges through his fellow characters’ lives, decimating them like a swarm of locusts, but all achieved inadvertently: he is not a man prone to fits of empathy.

boom book reviews - cover image of Solar by Ian McEwan

Almost by chance he finds himself heading up a government initiative to produce an innovative renewable energy solution to support the British effort in tackling climate change, something Beard doesn’t believe in but is happy to be associated with. He feeds off others’ ideas, passing them off as his own, and gets away with it... almost.

Solar is McEwan’s eleventh novel; you might have spotted some of his previous novels in film form, such as Atonement (released in 2007, starring James McAvoy, Keira Knightley and Saoirse Ronan) and the outstandingly brilliant Enduring Love (released in 2004, starring Daniel Craig, Rhys Ifans and Samantha Morton). Seven of his eleven novels have made it to the big screen so far; Solar could well make its way there in the not-too-distant future, although we’ve not heard any such rumours here at BOOM.

McEwan pulls off quite a feat in Solar. The protagonist is, quite frankly, a despicable character, but it’s quite hard to really despise him, as well we ought. The story is told from his hapless perspective; we see the world through his eyes. And, despicable as he is, because he doesn’t seem to have any awareness of just how dark his dark side is, it’s hard to hold it against him. We’re left with the overwhelming impression that he’s just an ordinary-ish guy to whom life happens, so – contrary to our better judgement – it’s hard not to feel sorry for him.

It’s a riotous, riveting read, but as the momentum builds and the final page is reached you find yourself left with a feeling somewhat similar to when you’re convinced you’re about to sneeze, but then the feeling subsides and you’re left with a slightly itchy nose. Beard the womanising, cantankerous, narcissistic egotist looks all set to receive his comeuppance, but it is there that the story ends. Does he get his just desserts, or does he get away with it all? We never find out.

This sharply written, brilliantly inventive character assassination of a novel truly has its finger on the climate change pulse and should appeal equally to those who believe in climate change, and those who remain sceptical. It’s not so much about moralising or end-is-nigh doom-mongering as it is a tale of a slightly bad man making a bunch of questionable decisions motivated by his own self interest. Solar shines brightly but doesn’t dazzle us with quite as much flair as we wish it did.

four out of five