Mike McCormack - an extraordinary novel by a writer not yet famous but surely destined to be acclaimed by anyone who believes that the novel is not dea
Mike McCormack, Solar Bones, Tramp Press, 2016.
Once a year, on All Souls Day, it is said that the dead may return; Solar Bones tells the story of one such visit. Set in the west of Ireland as the recession is about to strike, this novel is a portrait of one man's experience when his world threatens to fall apart. Wry and poignant, Solar Bones is an intimate portrayal of one family, capturing how careless decisions ripple out into waves, and how our morals are challenged in small ways every day.
Single sentence novel wins Goldsmiths prize for books that 'break the mould'
Mike McCormack says Goldsmiths Prize win is ‘payback’ for his publisher Tramp
One of the judges, Prof Blake Morrison, said: “Set over a few hours in a single day, and told in the first- person voice of a middle-aged engineer, Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones transcends these seeming limits magnificently.
“Politics, family, art, marriage, health, civic duty, and the environment are just a few of the themes it touches on, in a prose that’s lyrical yet firmly rooted. Its subject may be an ordinary working life but it is itself an extraordinary work.” - Francesca Gosling
Excellence is always rare and often unexpected: we don’t necessarily expect masterpieces even from the great. Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones is exceptional indeed: an extraordinary novel by a writer not yet famous but surely destined to be acclaimed by anyone who believes that the novel is not dead and that novelists are not merely lit-fest fodder for the metropolitan middle classes.
McCormack is not entirely unknown. In 1996, he won the Rooney prize for Irish literature with his first collection of short stories, Getting It in the Head.The prize is a sure predictor of future greatness, responsible for bringing to wider public attention the work of Anne Enright, Claire Kilroy, Claire Keegan and the two mighty Kevins, Barry and Power. McCormack’s second collection, Forensic Songs, was published in 2012, and he is also the author of two novels, Crowe’s Requiem (1998) and Notes from a Coma (2005). But it would be safe to say that outside his native Ireland his work is less well known than that of many of his contemporaries. Solar Bones is published by Tramp, one of Ireland’s small independent publishing houses, which, like its UK counterparts, is enjoying an unprecedented period of growth and success. The book deserves attention and applause.
It stutters into life, like a desperate incantation or a prose poem, minus full-stops but chock-full of portent: “the bell / the bell as / hearing the bell as / hearing the bell as standing here / the bell being heard standing here / hearing it ring out through the grey light of this / morning, noon or night”. It is 2 November 2008, we are given to understand, All Souls’ Day, the Day of the Dead, the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. The bell is the Angelus bell and we are in rural Ireland – in Louisburgh, near Westport, County Mayo, “a county with a unique history of people starving and mortifying themselves for higher causes and principles [...] blistered with shrines and grottoes and prayer-houses and hermitages [...] a bordered realm of penance and atonement”.
The speaker hearing the bell is one Marcus Conway, husband, father and a civil engineer in some small way responsible for the wild rush of buildings, roads and bridges that disrupted life in Ireland during the boom that in the book has just gone bust. Marcus is a man gripped by “a crying sense of loneliness for my family”. We don’t quite know why until the very end of the novel, which comes both as a surprise and a confirmation of all that’s gone before.
Among its many structural and technical virtues, everything in the book is recalled, but none of it is monotonous. Marcus remembers the life of his father and his mother, for example, a world of currachs and Massey Fergusons. He recalls a fateful trip to Prague for a conference. He recalls Skyping his son in Australia, scenes of intimacy with his wife, and a trip to his artist daughter’s first solo exhibition, which consists of the text of court reports from local newspapers written in her own blood, “the full gamut from theft and domestic violence to child abuse, public order offences, illegal grazing on protected lands, petty theft, false number plates, public affray, burglary, assault and drunk-driving offences”. Above all, he remembers at work being constantly under pressure from politicians and developers, “every cunt wanting something”, the usual “shite swilling through my head, as if there weren’t enough there already”. He recalls when his wife got sick from cryptosporidiosis, “a virus derived from human waste which lodged in the digestive tract, so that [...] it was now the case that the citizens were consuming their own shit, the source of their own illness”.
The book is a hymn to modern small-town life, then, with its “rites, rhythms and rituals / upholding the world like solar bones”, as well as an indictment of human greed and stupidity, and how places and cultures respond to the circumstances beyond their control and yet of their own making.
Asked in a rare interview some years ago if there is such a thing as “Irish” writing, McCormack suggested that indeed there is and that it consists of “a three-part harmony of experiment, comedy and metaphysics”. The magnificent song that is Solar Bones possesses such peculiar depth, such consonances and dissonances that it is a reminder that a writer of talent can seemingly take any place, any set of characters, any situation and create from them a total vision of the reality. This is a book about Mayo, Ireland, Europe, the world, the solar system, the universe. - Ian Sansom
Solar Bones focuses on Marcus Conway, a fifty-something year old engineer from a small town in County Mayo. On 2nd November, All Souls Day, he sits in his kitchen listening to the Angelus bell. He opens the paper and starts to read, with the stories recalling memories from his past. We come to get to know Marcus as he reflects on his life, his marriage, his children and his job.
But this is not a typical story about a man ruminating on the events of his life. Written as a stream-of-consciousness narrative, there are no full-stops and little punctuation for the entire 223 pages. Sentences run into each other as he drifts from thought to thought and jumps through different time periods in his life and back again. This might sound daunting but don’t let it put you off. It might take a few pages, but once you get into the rhythm of the story it becomes easy to read.
It’s Mike McCormack’s skillful writing that makes Solar Bones as readable as it is, despite its difficulties on the surface. It’s lyrical and poetic, and flows easily, connecting each of Marcus’s thoughts and memories seamlessly, from his daughter’s art exhibition, to his wife’s illness, and his troubles with work. None of the thoughts are linear, but it’s not jarring for McCormack to pull you between years as Marcus reminisces.
Solar Bones comments on a lot of different aspects of life. The politics of a small town, modern art and protest, and the situation in Ireland soon after the recession hit. But most of all this is a book about domesticity and family life. It’s the parts of the story where Marcus thinks about his wife and his children that will stay with you the longest. There is such love and care when it comes to his family that it’s difficult not to feel for Marcus. He is a strong character, and well written. His relationship with his children is one that many people can relate to; not understanding why his children do what they do, but supporting them nonetheless, with only a small amount of reproach.
The only thing to be warned about with Solar Bones is that, if possible, refrain from reading the blurb at the back of the book. It gives away the ending, and I think the book is better not knowing. It’s something you can probably figure out along the way, but if there’s any surprise to be had, it’s worth waiting until you get to the end. But overall this is an enjoyable book, and McCormack’s talent shines through. - Rachel Casey
Mike McCormack is an award-winning novelist and short story writer from Mayo. His previous work includes Getting it in the Head (1995), Notes from a Coma (2005), which was shortlisted for the Irish Book of the Year Award, and Forensic Songs (2012). In 1996 he was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and in 2007 he was awarded a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship. Here’s a teaser from Solar Bones:
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