‘Solar Bones’, Mike McCormack

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For my first blog post, I figured the last book I finished was the best place to start. 

 I picked this book up in Anna B’s Bookshop in Schull. I first met owner Katarina at Grove House, which was my family’s favourite restaurant in Schull, West Cork. Katarina has now opened her bookshop, where you can buy coffee and cake as well as a good book. 

 I chose this book because I read a positive review beforehand, I think Rick O’Shea mentioned it in his book club Facebook group. I was told it was about West Cork, that was wrong, it’s actually set in Mayo. Anyway, I didn’t regret picking this. 

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 Solar Bones is the story of modern small-town life and the “rites, rhymes and rituals” that consume it as we focus on one Marcus Conway, a husband, father and civil engineer.

Throughout the novel, we are immersed in Marcus’s thoughts and concerns in a stream of consciousness narrative masterfully executed by author Mike McCormack.

Solar Bones tells what is on the surface a simple tale, but which is made huge by the extent by which the reader is immersed in the narrator’s thoughts as he thinks about his life and how he has lived it.

The story begins in Louisburgh, Co Mayo, home of Marcus and his ancestors before him, against a backdrop of unrest and anxiety brought on by the economic downturn.

In his role as a county engineer, Marcus himself is a representative of this theme, in his role throwing up buildings, bridges before and during the economic collapse.

Throughout the novel, we witness the Mayo man’s recollections of his childhood and that of his children, along with preoccupied thoughts of his father, who fell apart following the death of Marcus’s mother.

His father’s breakdown and retreat from society brings to mind Marcus’s own apparently instability and frustration while his agony in work is a signpost indicating how the novel will come to a close.

The Conway family unit is stable and comforting but is punctuated by incidents including the patriarch’s panic attack following an exhibition by his artist daughter.

This incident is closely followed by illness of wife Mairéad, who is struck down after a restaurant meal and is nursed by Marcus, with the narrator’s flashback to their blissful days of early marriage a stark contrast to the graphic sickness experienced during his wife’s illness.

McCormack’s description of the viral parasite which affects Mairéad and the wider community has almost a sci-fi, unreal element threaded throughout the novel as the public react to the virus caused by civil incompetence.

Stressful periods at work arguing with cute local politicians are indicative of a larger life in disarray, which is punctuated by Skype calls with his son in Australia and quiet moments contemplating his surroundings.

A ponderous person who rehashes events constantly in his head, the reader witnesses Marcus as threads gradually unravel in his head just before he turns up one morning and sits at his kitchen table to consider the events that took him home again.

This novel gets right inside the heads of men we all know and love, in stripping down this man’s mind and revealing his anxieties and his internal despair.

This is an extraordinary book with amazing language and astonishing use of metaphor, among which the description of a tractor dismantled sets off a fixation on order and structure in Marcus’s mind.

Rooney prize-winner in 1996, Mike McCormack has two previous novels, Crowe’s Requiem in 1998 and Notes from a Coma in 2005.

Solar Bones is published by Tramp Press.

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