Ian Samson, review of Solar Bones by Mike McCormack in The Guardian (4 June 2016)

[Details: Ian Samson, ‘An extraordinary hymn to small-town Ireland’, review of review of Solar Bones by Mike McCormack in The Guardian (4 June 2016); available online; accessed 14.09.2016.]

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 and that novelists are not merely lit-fest fodder for the metropolitan middle classes.

McCormack is not entirely unknown. In 1996, he won the Rooney prize for Irish literature with his first collection of short stories, Getting It in the Head.The prize is a sure predictor of future greatness, responsible for bringing to wider public attention the work of Anne Enright, Claire Kilroy, Claire Keegan and the two mighty Kevins, Barry and Power. McCormack’s second collection, Forensic Songs, was published in 2012, and he is also the author of two novels, Crowe’s Requiem (1998) and Notes from a Coma (2005). But it would be safe to say that outside his native Ireland his work is less well known than that of many of his contemporaries. Solar Bones is published by Tramp, one of Ireland’s small independent publishing houses, which, like its UK counterparts, is enjoying an unprecedented period of growth and success. The book deserves attention and applause.

It stutters into life, like a desperate incantation or a prose poem, minus full-stops but chock-full of portent: “the bell / the bell as / hearing the bell as / hearing the bell as standing here / the bell being heard standing here / hearing it ring out through the grey light of this / morning, noon or night”. It is 2 November 2008, we are given to understand, All Souls’ Day, the Day of the Dead, the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. The bell is the Angelus bell and we are in rural Ireland - in Louisburgh, near Westport, County Mayo, “a county with a unique history of people starving and mortifying themselves for higher causes and principles [...] blistered with shrines and grottoes and prayer-houses and hermitages [...] a bordered realm of penance and atonement”.

The speaker hearing the bell is one Marcus Conway, husband, father and a civil engineer in some small way responsible for the wild rush of buildings, roads and bridges that disrupted life in Ireland during the boom that in the book has just gone bust. Marcus is a man gripped by “a crying sense of loneliness for my family”. We don’t quite know why until the very end of the novel, which comes both as a surprise and a confirmation of all that’s gone before.

Among its many structural and technical virtues, everything in the book is recalled, but none of it is monotonous. Marcus remembers the life of his father and his mother, for example, a world of currachs and Massey Fergusons. He recalls a fateful trip to Prague for a conference. He recalls Skyping his son in Australia, scenes of intimacy with his wife, and a trip to his artist daughter’s first solo exhibition, which consists of the text of court reports from local newspapers written in her own blood, “the full gamut from theft and domestic violence to child abuse, public order offences, illegal grazing on protected lands, petty theft, false number plates, public affray, burglary, assault and drunk-driving offences”. Above all, he remembers at work being constantly under pressure from politicians and developers, “every cunt wanting something”, the usual “shite swilling through my head, as if there weren’t enough there already”. He recalls when his wife got sick from cryptosporidiosis, “a virus derived from human waste which lodged in the digestive tract, so that [...] it was now the case that the citizens were consuming their own shit, the source of their own illness”.

The book is a hymn to modern small-town life, then, with its “rites, rhythms and rituals / upholding the world like solar bones”, as well as an indictment of human greed and stupidity, and how places and cultures respond to the circumstances beyond their control and yet of their own making.

Asked in a rare interview some years ago if there is such a thing as “Irish” writing, McCormack suggested that indeed there is and that it consists of “a three-part harmony of experiment, comedy and metaphysics”. The magnificent song that is Solar Bones possesses such peculiar depth, such consonances and dissonances that it is a reminder that a writer of talent can seemingly take any place, any set of characters, any situation and create from them a total vision of the reality. This is a book about Mayo, Ireland, Europe, the world, the solar system, the universe.

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