Booker longlist reading: Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

I’ve been looking forward to this novel since I read about the shortlist, although I can’t exactly tell you why. I don’t gravitate to Irish-set fiction, I’d never heard of the author, and the entire text is one long sentence (more on that later). That should be at least two strikes against it. But something in the description grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

I wish I had the talent to write this entire review in one sentence but I don’t so I’ll spare you and just use my normal rambling, overly-comma-filled style. Marcus Conway is a middle-aged engineer who lives in County Mayo, in a small village near the coast. The book opens with him listening to the Angelus bells tolling at noon. The reader knows (from the blurb on the back of the Irish version) that Marcus is dead, but Marcus doesn’t seem to. He stands in his kitchen, thinking about his life and his family. The rest of the text is made up of his memories of various events, although they often have an immediacy that makes them feel as if they’re happening in the present. Maybe when you’re no longer alive time doesn’t work the same way.

Anyway, Marcus reflects on his various roles: as a son, a father, a husband, and a civil servant. He’s mostly performed these roles very well, although he’s fallen down hard a few times. His marriage has weathered some storms but he and his wife, Mairead, have a strong, loving, and still passionate relationship. His daughter Agnes is an artist with a promising future ahead of her, and his son Darragh is off spending a year working his way through Australia and other countries far from home. Through Marcus’s recollections we get crisp images of each family member, as well as of some of the politicians and businessmen he clashes with as part of his job. McCormack does a phenomenal job of immersing the reader in Marcus’s life. At one point I was almost afraid to keep reading because I didn’t know if one of his family members would pull through, and I really didn’t want anything bad to happen. This is the power of fiction: in a hundred pages I was fully invested in people that I had no idea I’d even be interested in.

This book struck me as the structural inverse of Reservoir 13: Whereas Reservoir 13 takes a distanced view of a village and slowly draws you into individual lives, community relationships, and the natural world, Solar Bones takes one man’s life experiences and pans out to encompass the surrounding community. Both juxtapose quotidian events with large-scale change (especially environmental hazards and how we are changing our natural and built surroundings). The main characters are imperfect but humane and caring. Ordinary people turn out to be much more than their simple descriptions suggest. I’m sure I related to Marcus in part because he’s an engineer like my father, and McGregor shows how love of science and appreciation for art, spontaneity and meticulousness, can coexist in the same personality. When Marcus worries about his daughter, I felt as if I were eavesdropping on my father, and Marcus’s mixture of confusion and pride at her artistic talent brought back old memories.

Much has been made of the single-sentence structure of this novel. As Liz and Teresa have observed, once you fall into the rhythm you don’t really notice it and it’s not intrusive, although I did have to remind myself to take breaths in the first part of the book! There may not be full stops, but there are paragraphs, and if you look at where the line breaks occur you can see they’ve been carefully thought out.

This is such a beautifully conceived and crafted book. It’s about the world we live in, how we live in it, and what we’re doing to it, as well as about the ways in which apparently mundane relationships and connections are rich with emotion and meaning and intensity. I can see why it has already won awards, and I’d love to see it make the shortlist.

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