Posted by: Corri van de Stege | February 27, 2011

Is Ian McEwan’s Solar a LabLit novel?

Cover of "Solar"

Cover of Solar

After reading Jennifer Rohn’s The Honest Look it seemed a seamless transition to move to Ian McEwan’s Solar, which was waiting on my e-reader amongst a dozen or so other so far unread books.  It’s amazing how easy it is to collect books on your e-reader, with a click on the laptop they’re there, for the time when you sit on a train or just cannot make up your mind what to read next. 

Solar is about Michael Beard, a scientist who has not only won a Nobel Prize, but who also believes that he is admittedly unaccountably attractive to beautiful women.  Surprisingly so because he is also bald, short, fat and clever and when it comes down to it is a very unsympathetic character with no redeeming features.  Nevertheless I persevered in reading about him until the very end of the book.

I had already written the draft of this review when I came across Nicholas Lezard’s choice of paperbacks in the Guardian yesterday, which was McEwan’s Solar.  Lezard believes that McEwan is able to make us feel acutely uneasy and glued at the same time when relating events that happen to a protagonist which are so awful that we wince.  He cites the example of Beard being out in sub zero temperatures in the frozen north and there is ‘a distinct possibility that our hero’s penis will be snapped off by the cold.’  This, Lezard says, is exactly the kind of thing that keep us reading, this is what McEwan does ‘putting men up trees and throwing rocks at them’ and so Beard is the man up the tree and he is the most awful character but nevertheless because of McEwan’s mastery with language the book in the end is very good.

I’m not sure if I agree with the last statement, only if it means that despite my misgivings and the awfulness of the character, who,  in the end is not really that funny and whose life is not that amusing either, I kept on reading and yes am probably glad in the end that I persevered.  McEwan is that good a writer that he is able to seamlessly marry up the man and who is he and what he does in his private life with the scientist who is involved in the serious business of climate change.   And that’s where I imagine we could slot it into the serious science writing part of LabLit as Lohn defines her novels.  She sees herself as someone who writes seriously about science, and who knows her science.

McEwan also has done his homework in that respect.  Michael Beard is a scientist who got his Nobel Prize for work carried out when he was very young and still in his first marriage.  Since that first marriage, he has had four others and as many divorces,  and his fifth and current marriage falls apart when Patrice his wife discovers his adultery and takes revenge  by having an in your face affair with a builder called Tarpin, who is fit and able to take Beard on any time.  Beard however, is held in high esteem by the science community, as a Nobel Laureate he sat on a Royal Commission on science funding, writes peer reviews and attends international conferences and seminars.  His Nobel Prize was awarded for the Beard-Einstein Conflation, but after 20 years it begins to show that he has no new ideas and finds himself the head of a new government funded research laboratory on the outskirts of Reading, where ‘a civil servant called Jock Braby did the real work’, which relates to climate change.  Beard, however, is not really that interested, and he has no new ideas.

It is exactly because of this setting, the intertwining of the personal and the professional Beard that the book is fascinating in the same way that Lohn’s book is so readable.  The interest is in what happens in the world of science and scientists working in labs and in communities.  The same jealousies are a major part of the story, betrayals, and in Solar, even death.  Beard is not only devious in his personal life, he is similarly ruthless when it comes to using someone else’s ideas and sells them as his own.

No, I did not like Beard, but the story about the world of scientists and the smallness of that world, the way it is not immune to self-interest and clumsy personal interactions is fascinating.  Of course, Beard is on a road to perdition, but exactly how and where is left to our imagination.



  1. Great review. I’m very intrigued now but I’m also a bit repelled by the character. I also think I’ve read enough McEwan for a while. But will certainly pick this up in due course. Am interested to hear about those other 12 or so unread books on your e-reader.

  2. Nice review, belatedly discovered. I didn’t like the protagonist either, but I don’t think we were supposed to! Typical McEwan in that regard.

    I wanted to thank you for mentioning my book ‘The Honest Look’ as well, but also point out that my surname is Rohn, not Lohn. 😉

  3. So sorry Jennifer about the misspelling of your name. I will correct it, just in case there are more late readers of my blog! Thanks very much for passing by: greatly enjoyed your book, I loved your take on Amsterdam (am Dutch and lived there when just starting off on working life and before moving to London).

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