Solar Bones is, on one level, a fairly simple story: Marcus Conway is a middle-aged civil servant – an engineer – living, as did his parents before him, in the village of Louisburgh in County Mayo on Ireland’s west coast, with his wife, Mairead, in the home they’d shared with their now-grown children, Darragh (off on his travels in Australia) and Agnes (a young avant-garde artist based in Galway). Marcus finds himself at home alone one afternoon, and the book follows his thoughts that day as he contemplates his extended family history, his career development, his marital difficulties and joys, and the events of a few particular days in the recent past, during which he and Mairead attend Agnes’s first show after graduating, following which Mairead gets struck down with a dose of food poisoning that turns out to have resulted from contaminated drinking water and has taken half the west coast down with it. We get his ruminations on politics (including some truly brilliant scenes of bickering between local candidates and himself as the diligent council engineer) and history and art and family and the very nature of reality; a one-time seminarian, Marcus isn’t your typical engineer, and his tone is both elegiac and gruff, carping and contemplative. As slight as the plot is, his voice makes it unceasingly captivating. And, of course, it’s not as simple as I’ve made it sound: no spoilers, but there’s a real kick in the final pages – one that’s subtly signposted throughout, one that complicates the whole nature and purpose of Marcus’s extended monologue, one that makes you immediately want to start the book all over again.
If you’ve read McCormack before, you’ll know he’s not a complacent writer – his style is various, his different characters’ voices shifting from a Borgesian intellectualism to a more grotesque, colloquial vernacular. In Solar Bones, he’s gone for a more lyrical vibe, but we’re not talking your typical lit-fic pretty sentences – this is Woolf-style stream of consciousness (think The Waves) crossed with wry political commentary (think Saramago’s Blindness and Seeing). The prose hurtles on for over two hundred pages with ne’er a full-stop, but it’s neither artificially breathless nor pretentiously experimental; rather, it’s a credible and beautiful rendering of a distracted, slightly bewildered man’s chain of thought – and, if you need reassurance, the paragraph breaks and changes in register as he switches from inner monologue to remembered speech mean it’s utterly readable; there’s no Jamesian convolutions waiting here to snag or frustrate you. Marcus’s description of Agnes’s artworks is a reasonable proxy for a description of his own stylings:
‘… a maelstrom of voices and colour and it was quite something to stand there and have your gaze drawn across the walls, swept along in the full surge of the piece while resisting the temptation to rest or decipher one case or another, wanting instead to experience the full flow and wash of the entire piece, my gaze swept along in the relentless, surging indictment of the whole thing, its swells and depths…’
Unlike Agnes’s work however, his own soliloquy isn’t an indictment of society: his account of his country and his life, while never rose-coloured or naïve, and while scathing when necessary, is suffused with wonder at life’s complexity and beauty. He is in awe of:
‘… 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…’
Lovely, right? In terms of recent Irish fiction, then, this book is in the same ball-park as Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing as far as formal innovation is concerned, but it’s an optimistic book, a forward-looking, hopeful text, even as and when disaster strikes. And in terms of its attention to detail, its celebration of life’s minutiae, it’s not far off Nicholson Baker (The Mezzanine or Room Temperature).
Any Cop?: Absolutely. We could quote from Solar Bones for pages and pages; the ending left us dazed and it was a struggle not to immediately reread it. An immensely powerful book that blends the sublime and the everyday in a way that, if it doesn’t make you rethink the whole engineering profession, will definitely make you want to cheer McCormack onto this year’s prize lists. One of our top reads of the year so far.