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LONGLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2017WINNER OF THE GOLDSMITHS PRIZE 2016BGE IRISH BOOK OF THE YEAR 2016Marcus Conway has come a long way to stand in the kitchen of his home and remember the rhythms and routines of his life. Considering with his engineer's mind how things are constructed - bridges, banking systems, marriages - and how they may come apart. Mike McCormack captures with tenderness and feeling, in continuous, flowing prose, a whole life, suspended in a single hour.
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“There but for the grace of God go I” were, allegedly, words originally uttered by the reformer John Bradford in the sixteenth century. Or they may have first fallen from the mouth of the puritan Richard Baxter in the seventeenth century… No one knows for sure. It only matters that at some stage people started using this phrase, and Solar Bones put me in mind of it repeatedly.
In a month where tragedy and loss has occurred both nationally and locally, it felt timely to be reading this very reflective story which catalogues utterly human, ordinary experiences and memories. The subject, Marcus, could be any one of us. He has no fatal flaw, no heroic attributes. He is essentially a decent man who never imagined his own mortality.
A book like Solar Bones will take you down one of two paths; it’ll either prove a struggle to engage with or you’ll devour the whole thing in one sitting. Mike McCormack’s style here conveys a stream of consciousness, the memories of a life, and is written without a single full stop. This technique works perfectly to reflect the constant and drifting nature of a human thought process - however it also makes it incredibly tricky to pause in your reading. So unless you’ve set aside a good chunk of time, prepare to do a lot of reminder reading as you pick up the threads again with each session.
When each and every paragraph ends mid sentence and drifts to the next train of thought, the experience is almost like moving from one mini-cliff-hanger to another all the way through the book, and it is this which makes it hard to put down. Having said that, it is also extremely demanding of a reader’s concentration as there is no natural moment to reflect. I can see the stylistic wisdom of writing in this way, but it is not without its practical challenges for the reader.
Quite naturally, I found some episodes that McCormack depicts more engaging than others. Marcus’ experiences with his family and daughter caught my imagination much more than his professional and political struggles as a county civil engineer. That’s not to say that we don’t need all of these stories; it’s important that we understand Marcus. This is after all his stream of consciousness.
There is a current of gentle humour running through this story, all based on the curiosity of human behaviour. The passages describing the artistic exploits of Marcus’ daughter Agnes are so surreal and magnificent that it’s hard not smile. Much of this humour, though, is down to recognition. Marcus’ adult children and the vague concerns that he has over their lifestyles will be common ground to many a parent. For me, a connection lay in the way that the siblings converse, using nicknames like ‘Agnes the Unhinged’, and I keenly related to the memories of bewildered new parenthood. There is in fact a memory in this story to correspond with every reader, simply because it is a lifetime of memory that we are party to.
Like Marcus, we do not know when we will see our families for the last time, and every day we consciously or subconsciously (depending on how neurotic you are probably) hope that this is not the day that you say goodbye. So it is that we should be grateful each time that we come home safely, making the most of our families and loving them deeply. After all, as either a puritan or a reformer in the sixteenth or seventeenth century said… “There but for the grace of God go I.”
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 * * Guardian * * Pure enchantment from an otherworldly talent. I admired the hell out of this book -- ELEANOR CATTON, Man Booker Prize-winning author of THE LUMINARIES Wonderfully original, distinctly contemporary . . . delivered in lucid, lyrical prose . . . A pleasure to read * * New York Times * * McCormack has always been among the most adventurous and ambitious Irish writers. Solar Bones, written in one single sonorous sentence, tells the story of a family in contemporary Ireland -- COLM TOIBIN The writing catches fire as we draw near to the void, pass over into death itself, and therein confront the truth that even in a fallen universe, when all distractions tumble away, the only adequate response to our being is astonishment * * Irish Times * * Exhilarating -- LISA McINERNEY Hauntingly sad, but also frequently very funny - Proust reconfigured by Flann O'Brien -- Literary Review Beautiful . . . Compulsive * * The Times * * This is prose that reads as if it is being thought . . . reduced me to tears * * New Statesman * * A masterpiece -- Blake Morrison With stylistic gusto, and in rare, spare, precise and poetic prose, Mike McCormack gets to the music of what is happening all around us. One of the best novels of the year -- COLUM McCANN On every page, a celebration of the everyday, the odd, the incidental -- SARA BAUME McCormack is one of our bravest and most innovative writers - he shoots for the stars with this one and does not fall short -- KEVIN BARRY