Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
Formally ambitious, stylistically dauntless and linguistically spirited, Solar Bones is a novel of extraordinary assurance and scope. That its protagonist, Marcus Conway, is dead we know from the back cover blurb: the novel’s task is, through the miracle of language, to bring him back to life. And so it does, bringing him back to his life, a life experienced as both ordinary (in its daily routines) and extraordinary (in its probing of what it means to be alive).
Marcus Conway is a complex and challenging hero: a flawed, bullish and impatient protagonist, but a compelling character nonetheless who engineers his private and public selves into a finely-tuned consciousness that animates and underwrites every episode of this remembered life. Marcus’ memory is exhaustive, ranging between the various circumstances of his family and work lives. The novel is episodic and what runs under each episode is a current of intense feeling and keenly-honed attention.
In this probing of what it means to play out the various roles of husband, father, son, brother, colleague and neighbour, Solar Bones offers a sharp, acerbic and often very funny response to contemporary Irish masculinity. Its account of the relationship between Marcus and Mairead is a particularly piercing and affecting portrayal of contemporary marriage, with its necessary inter-webbings and defended privacies; its desires, losses and rewards.
By times sharp and critical; by others, surprisingly tender and alert, Marcus’s narrative voice collates a lifetime’s worth of experience into an account that neither glamourises its consolations, nor reneges upon its failings and shortcomings.
The novel’s seamless structure gives it a beautifully fluid pace. An extremely enjoyable read, it is also poignant, moving and evocative. Although firmly committed to its particular Mayo setting, this is a novel of universal appeal: if you know Ireland, you will recognise this world; but if you don’t, you will still recognise Marcus Conway, a rich and (literally!) haunting character who brings a whole world to life.
2018 judging panel: Vona Groarke, Xiaolu Guo, Nicky Harman, Courttia Newland, Mpalive Msiska, Judge Eugene Sullivan (non-voting Chair)