Belinda McKeon’s Solace is an extraordinarily accomplished first novel—a story of a father and son thrown together by tragedy; one clinging to the old country and one plunging into the new. Set in an Ireland that catapulted into wealth at the end of the twentieth century and then suffered a swift economic decline, this is a novel about the conflicting values of the old and young generations and the stubborn, heartbreaking habits that mute the ...
Belinda McKeon’s Solace is an extraordinarily accomplished first novel—a story of a father and son thrown together by tragedy; one clinging to the old country and one plunging into the new. Set in an Ireland that catapulted into wealth at the end of the twentieth century and then suffered a swift economic decline, this is a novel about the conflicting values of the old and young generations and the stubborn, heartbreaking habits that mute the language of love.
Tom and Mark Casey are a father and son on a collision course, two men who have always struggled to be at ease with each other. Tom is a farmer in the Irish midlands, the descendant of men who have farmed the same land for generations. Mark, his only son, is a doctoral student in Dublin, writing his dissertation on the nineteenth-century novelist Maria Edgeworth, who spent her life on her family’s estate, not far from the Casey farm. To his father, who needs help baling the hay and ploughing the fields, Mark’s academic pursuit is not man’s work at all, the occupation of a schoolboy. Mark’s mother negotiates a fragile peace.
Then, at a party in Dublin, Mark meets Joanne Lynch, a lawyer in training whom he finds irresistible. She also happens to be the daughter of a man who once spectacularly wronged Mark’s father, and whose betrayal Tom has remembered every single day for twenty years.
After the lightning strike of devastating loss, Tom and Mark are left with grief neither can share or fully acknowledge. Not even the magnitude of their mutual loss can alter the habit of silence. Solace is a beautiful and moving novel by one of the most exciting new writers to emerge from Ireland.
Belinda McKeon, an award-winning playwright and journalist, was born in Ireland in 1979 and grew up on her parents' farm. She studied literature at Trinity College, Dublin, and worked as an arts writer for The Irish Times. McKeon has an MFA in creative writing from Columbia and lives in Brooklyn with her husband.
Mark’s father did not expect him to come and live at home. He did not expect him to gradually take over the running of the farm. In the first place, his father had no intention of handing control of the farm to anybody—it was his life, and its daily rituals and its daily difficulties were like oxygen to him, much as he might complain of them. Nor, Mark knew, did his father honestly think that farming offered any kind of future. Especially on the small scale on which he farmed, it was impossible to make a living from it. Yet none of this kept his father from thinking that Mark should do more of what he called taking an interest; that Mark should be around more often, there for the larger jobs, there to advise his father on whether to expand the yard or to buy a new piece of machinery—or, at least, there to express approval at the decisions his father had already made on these things. He did not want an heir, Mark’s father. He wanted a partner. And a life in Dublin that required Mark to be physically present in the city for only two hours a week—for the undergrad class he taught, and for the office hour he was obliged to hold afterwards—seemed to Mark’s father no barrier to the kind of partnership he had in mind.
Mark was the only son. He had an older sister, Nuala, who had lived in England for years. His father had neighbours, but he would not ask them for help. He had brothers-in-law, but they lived in the town, played bridge, went with their wives to Tesco and Supervalu to do the weekly shop. They did not drive tractors. They did not haul bales. They did not talk traneens and wet clumps and oil filters and phone calls to the Met Office. And there were no brothers. His father had not been born an only child, but he was as good as one now. And he knew how to turn the tricks of an only child when there was something he wanted.
But with Mark—with Mark and the farm—those tricks were not turning, at least not as Tom expected them to turn. Mark knew this. He had seen it on his father’s face so many times, on so many of those evenings when it was time for him to return to Dublin after a weekend at home. It was not anger, it was not disappointment; it was, instead, a sort of uncomprehending surprise. How could he be leaving, when things had been running so smoothly with both of their shoulders to the wheel, when there were still jobs to be done and to be discussed? How could he have failed to hear his father’s many pleas for his continued presence, delivered in the guise of casual conversation since the minute he had arrived from the railway station? How could he be going when the fact of what he needed to be doing was laid out all around them in acres and herd numbers and ear tags and calendar markings for tests and marts and dehornings and cows that were due to calve?
“Jesus, I didn’t think you were going so soon. And you have to be back up there?”
It was the same from his father every time. The same words. The same tone—the tone other fathers might have used upon discovering that their sons had just been redeployed to Iraq. Mark always managed, always succeeded with his tactic of being at once firm and vague, but he always knew, too, that in a week, or in a fortnight, or in a month, he would be back again, having a conversation that felt like an ulcer, making himself late for the Sunday evening train.
It was a small farm. A hundred acres, meadows around the farmyard and a stretch of bog at the far end of the lane; thirty cows or so spending their year in those meadows and in that bog instead of in the slatted shed that, Mark knew, his father wanted his help to build. A slatted shed, somehow, was the sign of a real farm, and it was essential if you wanted to get at the really good grants, but Mark scarcely knew what to say anytime his father hinted at the need for one, because Mark barely knew how to build a fire, let alone a slatted shed. Was he supposed to come down one weekend and suddenly take on the skills of a builder, a carpenter, an engineer of the flow and storage of bovine sewage? You built the shed over a pit of some sort, that he knew, and you put slats over the pit, and then you kept cattle in the shed for long periods, and you fed them there, and in the pit beneath the slats you collected their shit, and at the end of the season you had a shedful of saleable animals and a pitful of pedigree manure, and the grant cheque came in the post and you went to the bank to lodge it with all the other proper farmers. And then you did something with the money—invested it back into the farm somehow, made some strategic decisions about the way the next year was going to go. You sold your animals, and you bought new ones, and you bought new machinery, and maybe you bought new land, and you expanded, you extended, you excelled, and all the other farmers and all the other farmers’ sons welcomed you to the club.
But Mark was writing a doctorate on a nineteenth-century novelist, and when he finished it he wanted to do the things that you did after you finished a doctorate on a nineteenth-century novelist: maybe write a book about a nineteenth-century novelist, maybe teach a course or two on nineteenth-century novelists, or maybe run the hell as far away from nineteenth-century novelists as he could. He didn’t know. He had to get his thesis finished first, and he had to publish many more papers, and present at many more conferences, and he had to ingratiate himself with the English departments of various universities, which was something he kept meaning to get around to but had not yet quite achieved. As a teacher—or, more accurately, as a teaching assistant—he suspected he was terrible; he had recognised, in his students’ eyes, the same slow dawn of scorn and incredulity of which he had been a master in his own undergraduate years. He suspected, too, that he was writing an appalling excuse for a thesis, but still he felt sure that he wanted to have a career as an academic, to spend his days reading and researching and writing, figuring things out and pinning things down. What those things were, he no longer felt sure, but they were the things he wanted to do; he knew. And he knew that what he did not want to do was to live in Dorvaragh, even half of the time, even a quarter of the time, and farm with his father, and fight with his father, and watch himself becoming more and more the image of his father every day. But still he could not turn his back on him. He could not refuse him. He tried to be honest with him—he told him, over and over, that his life would be in Dublin, and that his trips to the farm would be occasional, but they would be as often as he could manage, and that that was the most and the best he could do. He knew that, with his father, the words were not taking. But he could not find in that fact justification to stay away, justification for anything like a final break. And, besides, a final break was not something that he even knew how to want.
In all of this, Mark’s mother was sympathetic. She told him to do what he had to do, to concentrate on his own work, to take with a pinch of salt his father’s air of being winded by his leaving, confused by his inability to stay. And yet, after a couple of weeks had passed, she would be on the phone again, wondering when he would be coming down. In the spaces between her words he felt he could almost hear his father’s breath.
“Monday,” his mother had said on the phone that morning, when he had explained to her about the deadline. “Monday, you’ll be finished? Monday we’ll see you, so?”
He had said yes. Or he had made some noise that sounded like it. Then he had said goodbye and, looking to the clock radio beside his bed, he had discovered that there were technically three more hours left in the morning, despite the sharpness of the sunlight splaying itself through the blinds. He had slipped back into a heavy, dream-crazed sleep, and when he had gone down to the kitchen more than three hours later, Mossy had cooked breakfast and had planned for them both what he called a knockout of a day.
And this was the knockout. A back yard in the Liberties, barely bigger than the sitting-room of their flat, heaving with the sun-blistered bodies of strangers and skangers and shits like Nagle, and a bar that looked populated entirely by jailbirds and jailbait, with a few pissed grandmothers and breastfeeding infants thrown into the mix. He knew he was kidding himself to think he’d get anything done now if he went back to the flat, back to his bedroom, where he’d set up an old kitchen table as his desk, across which his notes and books and print-outs lay in the kind of neat and careful order that, in truth, only meant that he wasn’t working, that he hadn’t been working for some time. Because there was on that desk no sign of the scuffling and flittering and leafing and scrambling it took to really get through a piece of academic work, with its footnotes and its quotations and its weavings in and out of elements from every scrap of paper touched and filed and vanished over the course of long months and years. It would be useless, Mark thought, but he would be better off there, and so he drained his pint and went to say goodbye to Mossy, pushing his way through the crowd, elbows and tummies and tits and arses and pint glasses raised and pint glasses slopping.
And talking to Mossy was a girl who made Mark decide, the instant he saw her, that he was staying where he was.