‘Solar Bones’ by Mike McCormack won the Goldsmiths Prize last year and has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year after it was picked up by the UK-based publisher Canongate. It tells the story of Marcus Conway, a middle-aged civil engineer living in a small town on the west coast of Ireland who is sitting at his kitchen table on All Souls Day reflecting on his life with his wife Mairead and their children Agnes and Darragh.
The most striking aspect of the prose is that the entire novel is written in a single sentence – a concept also used to hypnotic effect by Mathias Enard in Zone. However, the rhythms in ‘Solar Bones’ feel very different with plenty of paragraph breaks and after a while, the absence of full stops is barely noticeable. Unconventional usage of punctuation aside, ‘Solar Bones’ is also gripping and often very funny in its dissection of the minutiae of everyday life against the backdrop of the recession. As an engineer by trade, Marcus is often preoccupied with structures and this theme is explored through several different lenses including the buildings he works on, the national and regional political context and his personal relationships.
The blurb on the first edition of ‘Solar Bones’, published last year by the small Irish independent Tramp Press, revealed that Marcus is dead, something which isn’t stated explicitly in the novel until the last few pages. This was done with McCormack’s blessing (which is why I choose to mention it here) as he explained that he “made a deliberate decision to flag that at the beginning so that it would not come as a cheap reveal at the end of the book”. Interestingly, the blurb on the Canongate edition I read doesn’t state that Marcus is dead, so I didn’t know what was going to happen or that other readers would have already known what was coming until I read some reviews after I had finished it. I think the book can be satisfying either with or without the spoiler – the final scene is written so beautifully that it still has a powerful impact without prior knowledge of Marcus’ situation but I understand why McCormack wanted to be upfront about the eventual outcome too. It also adds an extra dimension to the stream-of-consciousness style of prose, making it seem other-worldly rather than just rambling for the sake of it.
‘Solar Bones’ is a welcome reminder that experimental prose can still be clever and inventive without being pretentious or nonsensical. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders and Days Without End by Sebastian Barry have been widely tipped to make the Man Booker Prize shortlist which is due to be announced on Wednesday 13th September but I would prefer to see ‘Solar Bones’ and Autumn by Ali Smith among the top six instead.