It’s not just because Mike McCormack is a gifted Irish writer that James Joyce comes to mind when reading “Solar Bones” (longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize). The form of the novel is also Joycean: The narrative is one continuous, open-ended sentence. Don’t let that put you off this ambitious but fundamentally accessible book. Yes, the opening is disorienting, but necessarily so, as McCormack’s careful clues slowly reveal.
During “that awful hour, [the] soft hour bracketed between the Angelus bell and the time signal for the one o’clock news,” Marcus Conway, a public works engineer in his late 40s, takes stock of his life. Marcus knows his bridges, and the novel itself is a nimble, reliable bridge; apart from some pacing problems in the late pages, it is structurally flawless. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it an aqueduct; Conway’s words, preoccupied with the essentials of life, flow across the page. And indeed water, tainted water (which sickens Conway’s wife, teacher Mairead), becomes one of the more important elements in the story.
Instead of confusing the eye, new paragraphs of McCormack’s rolling prose refresh the reader’s attention, as line breaks do in poetry. Here’s the passage that explains the title: “ … all those human rhythms that bind us together and draw the world into a community, those daily / rites, rhythms and rituals / upholding the world like solar bones, that rarefied amalgam of time and light. … ”
Conway’s immediate community is a village in Mayo, a ruggedly rural county on Ireland’s Atlantic coast. McCormack beautifully evokes its landscape and past. Some of the solar bones are antique indeed — Marcus is speaking to us in early November 2009, but he is attuned to the traditional Christian and even pagan influences that have shaped the calendar: “ … these grey days after Samhain when the souls of the dead are bailed from purgatory for a while by the prayers of the faithful so that they can return to their homes. … ”
Marcus is most concerned to tell us about the personal and professional dramas he was involved in the previous spring. He and Mairead have two children in their early 20s: a wandering son in Australia named Darragh, and Agnes, their edgy artistic daughter. She’s much closer to home, in Galway, the Irish “city of pageants and festivals,” but mentally further removed. On the work front, Marcus gets to live “the tension between politics and engineering” on an almost daily basis. The novel becomes a quiet hymn to professional integrity, to sticking up for standards and the common good.
McCormack matches this thematic control with lively characterization. Mairead’s father listens to a mea culpa from Marcus with an “expression of sorrowful fatigue loosening his features.” Occasionally, the prose falters with instances of redundancy and ineffective repetition. When “the sandwich tasted as good as it looked,” we don’t need to be told that “there was no disparity or margin between its appearance and its taste.”
But some lost opportunities for line edits don’t put a serious dent in the overall impact of “Solar Bones.” It’s an impressive meditation, as Joyce would say, “upon all the living and the dead.”
Robert Cremins, author of “A Sort of Homecoming,” teaches in the honors program at the University of Houston.
By: Mike McCormack.
Publisher: Soho Press, 217 pages, $25.