Mark Casey is a restless postgrad trying to find inspiration in his PhD. Pressure mounts to submit his work to guarantee the funding that will keep him going while he flits between his rural Irish hometown, grudgingly helping his ageing father on the farm, and his more cosmopolitan life in Dublin. Looking for inspiration in a few pints, he stumbles into trainee lawyer Joanne Lynch. The connection is instantaneous and so is their relationship. Sharing the same rural roots, they launch, drunkenly at first, into a whirlwind relationship that leaves her pregnant after a matter of months. While they adjust to the sudden new level in their relationship, they are forced to juggle caring for their newborn daughter, Aoife, and the demands of her fledgling job and his struggling thesis.
The novel takes a sudden tragic turn and Mark finds himself raising his daughter after he loses Joanne and his mother in a car accident. The focus then turns to a single man, struggling on his own, forced to face the realities of the cards life has dealt him and confront his difficult relationship with his father.
Like all beautiful stories, it is a love story that unfolds with tender loving passion and haste and ends suddenly in tragedy.
Belinda McKeon is a playwright and journalist who has worked as an arts writer for the Irish Times and graduated from Columbia University with a BFA in creative writing. As her debut novel, Solace is simple yet beautiful and catches the brutalities of life with simple honesty.
The book is set in Ireland at the end of the 20th century, catapulted from its rural past into one of wealth and opportunity. McKeon brings out the Irish setting through the slang and rural phrases scattered throughout the text.
Along with being a love story, the book picks up on the identity struggles of a youthful diaspora of young Irish adults leaving their quiet rural upbringing behind for the possibilities of the city.
The narrative flits between the two main characters and their individual struggles with their families as they defend their chosen lives away from home.
Mark finds himself reluctant to go back to face the daily humdrum of village life and gossip. He remains in regular conflict with his father, who prides manual labour over academic research.
Mark's visits back home to help his father bale the hay and plough the fields become more and more infrequent as he searches for excuses to hide away in the city. Joanne, on the other hand, has long disowned her family, keeping minimal contact with her estranged mother.
The main point of tension between the fledgling relationship lies in both their families, which have long held a grudge against each other after an issue over land ownership. This comes to the forefront when they both go home to confront their families with their relationship.
Both protagonists are at similar crossroads in life. Having chosen their paths, they find it hard to stick to them. Joanne finds herself overburdened with work, losing respect for her colleagues and finding herself sympathising with the person her client is suing.
Mark, having chosen his PhD based on 19th-century author and local legend Maria Edgeworth, begins to find his subject less and less three-dimensional as he has originally envisioned. It is over this estrangement with their pasts and struggles with their future that they bond.
While the story turns tragic, the end presents a glimmer of hope of new beginnings as Mark and his father, both having lost their other halves, attempt to repair their strained relationship. The young Aoife remains an innocent bystander in both the tragedy and reunion at the end.