Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 26, 2017

Solar Bones (2016), by Mike McCormack

Solar Bones is the much celebrated winner of the 2016 Goldsmiths Prize for fiction that “opens up new possibilities for the novel form”. Previous winners have included A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2013) by Eimear McBride (which I have never wanted to read); How to Be Both (2014) by Ali Smith (which I started but abandoned); and Beatlebone (2015) by Kevin Barry which somehow escaped my radar.  But I’ve read enthusiastic reviews from the LitBlogSphere about Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones so I bought a copy but forgot I’d bought a copy, and #SmacksForehead thus agreed to take a review copy via Allen & Unwin when it was offered to me.  As it turns out, I’m glad I read the Canongate edition, as you shall see.

The first thing to say is that I hesitated when I ticked the Experimental Fiction category, because – much as I liked it – Solar Bones didn’t seem to me to be opening up much in the way of new possibilities for the novel form.  The concept of a stream of consciousness novel tracing a single day, harvesting memories from the past en route, isn’t new.  Neither is the choice of narrator, about which I shall say nothing, nor is abandoning punctuation, especially since there are commas and dashes, but also line breaks and new paragraphs that start exactly where you’d expect them to if you were reading the text aloud and came to a full stop.  *chuckle* Maybe it’s because I’m a teacher by trade and have read countless unpunctuated student texts that drift artlessly from one topic to another but I had no difficulty reading this book, and I suspect that even confirmed pedants would soon learn to ‘see’ the invisible full stops just as I did.

So.  Compared to the experimental fiction I’ve explored, Solar Bones is tame but not lame, because it’s an interesting novel to read anyway.  The difficulty is how to review it without revealing matters which should be left for the reader to discover for herself.  For this reason I recommend this Canongate Edition rather than the Tramp edition I bought, which is notorious for its careless blurb. I am lucky to have forgotten any memory of it by the time I came to read the book.

The novel is set in Ireland when it was awash with money but with a clear consciousness of the economic disaster to come.  It is early November and civil engineer Marcus Conway is alone in his house with his thoughts which drift from one thing to another.   The newspaper left lying on the table by his wife Mairead triggers the theme of the novel: the loss of integrity in everyday life…

the front page stories telling the world is going about its relentless business of rising up in splendour and falling down in ruins with wars still ongoing in foreign parts – Afghanistan and Iran among others – as peace settlements are being attempted elsewhere – Israel and Palestine – while closer to home, the drama is in a lower key but real nonetheless – bed shortages in hospitals and public sector wage agreements under pressure – all good human stories no matter how they will pan out, you can feel that, the flesh and blood element twitching in them, while at the same time

in the over-realm of international finance other, more abstract indices are rising and falling to their own havoc – share prices, interest rates, profit margins, solvency ratios – money upholding the necessary imbalances so that everything continues to move ever forward while on one of the inside pages there is

one year on

a long article with an illustrative graph and quotes outlining the causes and consequences of our recent economic collapse, a brief résumé of events that culminated on the night of September 29th, feast of the archangel Michael – the night the whole banking system collapsed and the country came within a hair’s breadth of waking the following morning to empty bank accounts (p. 8)

As we all know, there has been no accountability anywhere for the Global Financial Crisis, and it’s ordinary folk in Greece and Portugal and the US and Ireland who have borne the brunt of the disaster.  Equally so in the novel, where it’s Mairead who suffers an appalling infection because of the contamination of the town’s water supply, for which no one will take responsibility and the effects of which are fudged by the authorities’ refusal to acknowledge anything other than the 400 hospitalisations, obscuring the numbers nursed at home with selfless devotion by people like Marcus.

The crisis in his work life arises when he refuses to sign off on an unsafe construction.  The problem occurred because of political interference, and it’s resolved through political interference, and Marcus knows full well that when disaster strikes it will be the engineers who are blamed for it.  (I confess to feeling mildly uneasy about the constant disparagement of politicians these days.  It seems to me that the world has copped That Dreadful Man because the wise and the good have abandoned the field of politics to the charlatans.  Who would want to be a politician when they are all tarred with the same brush?)

But Marcus is no holier-than-thou character.  He muses over his own attempts to live a good life, recalling times when his own integrity failed him.  The muddle of the modern world doesn’t make it easy whether families are spread far and wide, as when Marcus communicates inadequately with his son in Australia by Skype, or are nearby, as when he fails miserably to understand what his daughter means by her confronting performance art.  Diaspora is never far from the surface in Irish novels, and Marcus has to deal with his sister berating him from a distance for failing to look after his ageing father, a man with whom it’s impossible to communicate as dementia takes hold.

There are comic moments in this narrative, as well Marcus notes a street light placed through cronyism in a field to facilitate a farmer feeding his cattle at night, and when his father can’t start his new tractor because the ignition has been disabled by satellite because the paperwork to register him as its legal owner hasn’t been done.  But in general, the meditative tone and the melancholy of the modern world make Solar Bones a thought-provoking novel of our times.

Reviews that are safe to read are at 1st Reading and Reading Matters.

Author: Mike McCormack
Title: Solar Bones
Publisher: Canongate, 2016
ISBN: 9781786891297, RRP $19.99AUD
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin

Available from Fishpond: Solar Bones


  1. This is a book I have wanted to read. It is coming out here in the next few months, but in hard cover, so by the time I get to it the fuss will probably have blown over again and I can face it fresh!


    • This is one of those books that offer so much that every review is different, and I can’t wait to see what you make of it.
      For me, the text was coloured by seeing the aftermath of the GFC face-to-face: we were in Dublin in 2010, and you could see it on the faces of so many in the street, Though we saw no beggars, people actually looked hungry and their clothes hung on them as if they’d once fitted snugly round a broader belly and shoulders. We were mainly in the inner city but we saw very few young people strutting around in whatever was fashionable at the time, and even though the cafes and restaurants were all offering cheap meals most of them were half empty even at lunchtime. The atmosphere was quite different to Portugal and Spain where the protests against austerity were starting to ramp up… the Irish seemed utterly defeated by it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Re the infamous blurb, I asked the author direct at the Goldsmiths author readings and he confirmed that Tramp Press got it right. The reader is supposed to know what the Tramp Press blurb reveals, it is only Marcus Conway who doesn’t know. So it is actually disappointing that Canongate have taken a different decision.

    In passing it is also a little disappointing it has had to be republished by Canongate at all – which was done to make it Booker eligible.

    Excellent book though and I hope the decision to republish is rewarded with a Booker nod tomorrow.


    • Ohhhh #envy, how fantastic to be at the readings!
      Yes, I’ve read something about the Booker rules – something about how the book has to be published in the UK, right? That also excludes fine writing from Africa, and of course Australia, but it probably hurts more for Irish writing for all those historical reasons…


  3. Just to add to that, I do think the book is actually better without the “spoiler”, plus if the author wants the reader to know something it is rather odd to put it in the blurb on the back. But I wanted to at least exonerate Tramp Press as it was the author’s call not theirs.

    And your point on the effect of the disparagement of all politicians is very well made.


    • Actually, once you know what’s what, from my re-reading of parts of it I can see that there are signposts along the way even at the beginning, So fair enough, I suppose, but as you know from Goodreads, there is discontent about that blurb, and I agree with them too.
      But the fuss shouldn’t detract from what is a very fine novel. I have been disappointed by the last two Booker winners – started but abandoned both of them – and I’d like to see an elegant novel like this signal a return to the best of ‘our’ kind of writing.


  4. I’ve bought this, in fact I think it may one of the 2 or 3 books I’m carrying with me to read next. I think the problem of low quality politicians is caused by student politicians carrying on to ministers’ offices to state executives to the holy grail of a seat for life and not letting ‘real’ people in.


    • Would that it were as simple as that. That Dreadful Man is real, and so is Pauline Hanson and that peculiar one with the conspiracy theories!


  5. Glad you liked this one, Lisa. I loved the lyricism of the prose. As for politicians, I think Ireland has a particularly troubled time with dodgy ones over the past 40 or so years. Look up the term “gombeen man” and you’ll see this is a peculiarly Irish thing…


    • LOL That’s a new word to add to my vocabulary!


  6. I think the comments on politicians are relevant. But the common people of the world have only been granted political enfranchisement in recent times so those who govern are the minority who will perpetuate their own privilages. Australia as much as any other democracy has its share of corruption and greed. The seduction of uber – capitalism blinds us to the reality of the Western model of government both historical and current that cause such catastrophe.


    • Well, I’m not so sure that it’s the model of democracy that we have,, but rather the unbridled capitalism since the end of the Cold War. I’m pleased to see that there’s a new conversation starting about equality… it might lead to an improvement in things….


  7. Which version of How to be Both did you have. I couldn’t fathom the first copy I had which had Fransesco’s story first, and abandoned it, but then was given another that George’s story first and I was totally gripped by it.


    • Now that’s a question… I don’t know… maybe I should have a look in the library to see what they have…


    • I had the opposite and loved it

      Liked by 1 person

  8. […] (Pakistan-UK) (Hamish Hamilton), see my review Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland) (Canongate), see my review Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (UK) (4th Estate), on my wishlist Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM […]


  9. There seems to be a lot of fuss about these different editions. That wont affect me particularly, I don’t fancy the book anyway…. actually lots of the longlist isnt appealling to me


    • That’s how I felt last year!


  10. […] Solar Bones, by Mike McCormack, see my review […]


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