Author Mike McCormack

2017 Man Booker Review: Solar Bones

6th September 2017

By Jill Glenn

Published originally in 2016 by tiny independent Irish publishing house Tramp, Mike McCormack’s ‘Solar Bones’ was ineligible for last year’s Man Booker award; now, with a new home at Canongate, it has burst onto this year’s longlist, taking its rightful place as a potential ‘best novel of the year’.

Tramp included a critical piece of information in their original back cover blurb; Canongate have chosen not to. Something close to the end, therefore, comes as a surprise… and not a surprise. As soon as you know it, you know you knew it already – but be wary of reading reviews before you read the book: some of last year’s will assume you’re familiar with something you might prefer to discover in due course.

Much has been made of ‘Solar Bones’ as a single sentence novel, and, of course, it’s tempting to poke critical holes in this description. There are no full stops, certainly, but there are sentences, full sets of words with a finite verb, within the overall stream of consciousness. You might feel smug when you spot this, as though you’ve got one over on the author, but it isn’t the point; it really isn’t the point. Let the grammar go. Taking a reductive, analytical approach like this will seriously dismantle your enjoyment of what is an astonishing achievement. All you need do is open page one and plunge in.

It begins lyrically, like a prose poem (‘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’) and continues seamlessly for 265 pages of pure perfection: a meditation on life, love, loss, on keeping on keeping on.

Here we are in a kitchen in County Mayo (‘a bordered realm of penance and atonement’), on All Soul’s Day, listening with civil engineer Marcus Conway to the Angelus Bell, and invited into his head, his heart, his soul, for a fast, fluid account of his life – told backwards and forwards – in one long outpouring of thought. It’s a hymn to the ordinary, a quiet homage to domestic life, but not for a moment is it dull. Marcus loves his wife and adult children, although he is frustrated by the idleness of his bright but under-motivated son, Darragh (‘all we know is that he’s in Australia, travelling and growing a beard, that’s all we know about him’), and bemused by his wild, intense artist daughter, Agnes. Indeed, some of the most entertaining, laugh-out-loud funny sections of the book are Marcus’s musings on Agnes’s first solo exhibition and the night of its private view.

There is much about collapse: of health, of relationships, of municipal infrastructures, of the Irish economy… all analysed with Marcus’s engineering intellect. At times he despairs, but he is always grounded again by the things he values, including ‘… all those human rhythms that bind us together and draw the world into a community, those daily rites, rhythms and rituals upholding the world like solar bones, that rarefied amalgam of time and light whose extension through every minute of the day is visible from the moment I get up in the morning and stand at the kitchen window with a mug of tea in my hand…’
The weaving of detail into overview, and the unfolding of present into past and past into present is superbly done. Moreover, although the book is structurally, grammatically, unusual, it’s also utterly accessible. Experimental approaches can often sound like gimmicks, but it’s hard to conceive of the story being any other way. It’s just dazzling.

Best to read ‘Solar Bones’ with an understanding and tolerant companion to hand. Never have I wanted to read passages aloud (because they’re funny or clever or moving or sharply observed or beautifully written or all of those) more than I did with this hauntingly lovely book. And once you start, you can’t stop. It’s the lack of full stops that does it…

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