Fiction – paperback; Tramp Press; 224 pages; 2016.
On the face of it Solar Bones by Mike McCormack should not work. I can’t imagine how anyone would agree to publish a novel boiled down to two unescapable facts: the entire story is written stream of consciousness style and there’s not a single full-stop in more than 200 pages of prose.
What’s more it covers the unholy trinity of subjects polite people should never discuss at dinner parties: sex, religion and politics.
And yet there’s no denying this is a brilliant novel, a thrilling novel, a mesmerising, hypnotic novel. I read it enthralled by not only the beauty of the language, but the ways in which McCormack gets to the very heart of the extraordinary ordinariness of people’s lives, how the accumulation of little acts over time creates a whole life, and the ways in which our integrity, our moral goodness, is tested every day.
One man’s story
The book is narrated in the first person by a middle-aged man called Marcus Conway. He’s a civil engineer living in County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland with his wife Mairead. They have two grown up children: Agnes, who’s making a name for herself as a performance artist, and Darragh, who’s travelling around Australia on an extended gap year.
The narrative charts Marcus’s train of thought as he stands in his kitchen listening to the Angelus bell…
ringing out over its villages and townlands, over the fields and hills and bogs in between, six chimes of three across a minute and a half, a summons struck on the lip of the void which gathers this parish together through
all its primary and secondary roads with
all its schools and football pitches
all its bridges and graveyards
all its shops and pubs
the builder’s yard and health clinic
the community centre
the water treatment plant and
the handball alley
the made world with
all the focal points around which a parish like this gathers itself as surely as
the world itself did at the beginning of time, through
mountains, rivers and lakes
As you can see from the above quote, the narrative reads like poetry in places, helped in part by the clever use of line breaks which helps guide the reader through the rhythm of this one-sentence novel, lending it a rather lovely musicality.
A surreal adventure through time
As we follow Marcus’s inner-most thoughts we get taken on a rather surreal adventure that includes everything from the ups and downs of raising a family to the difficulties associated with being an engineer working on important projects for which politicians take all the credit. There are poignant moments, comic episodes, angry outbursts, instances of shock, pride, awe, and the occasional wry observation.
This seamless narrative, which jumps backwards and forwards in time, charts Marcus’s sometimes strained relationships with his children, his father, his sister and his wife. But there’s a refrain here: Marcus is constantly exploring what it is to be a good father, a good son, a good brother, a good husband. Even his career — or maybe especially his career — he is often tested by men who want to take short cuts, to flout the law, to ignore the long-term benefits in favour of the short-term.
And it is, indeed, this lack of accountability of those people in power (the novel is largely set during the boom years of the Celtic tiger) that results in the near hospitalisation of Marcus’s wife, Mairead, who succumbs to a dreadful illness caused by contamination of the local water supply. But, as the story draws to its final, shocking, conclusion, it is not Mairead that Marcus need be worried about…
Audacious and unforgettable
This is an audacious and unforgettable novel, perhaps my favourite read of 2017 so far.
Last year Solar Bones won the Goldsmiths Prize and the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book of the Year. Next week, I suspect it will win a third accolade: the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.
This is my 4th book for the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.