Booker longlist reading: Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

I’ve been looking forward to this novel since I read about the shortlist, although I can’t exactly tell you why. I don’t gravitate to Irish-set fiction, I’d never heard of the author, and the entire text is one long sentence (more on that later). That should be at least two strikes against it. But something in the description grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

I wish I had the talent to write this entire review in one sentence but I don’t so I’ll spare you and just use my normal rambling, overly-comma-filled style. Marcus Conway is a middle-aged engineer who lives in County Mayo, in a small village near the coast. The book opens with him listening to the Angelus bells tolling at noon. The reader knows (from the blurb on the back of the Irish version) that Marcus is dead, but Marcus doesn’t seem to. He stands in his kitchen, thinking about his life and his family. The rest of the text is made up of his memories of various events, although they often have an immediacy that makes them feel as if they’re happening in the present. Maybe when you’re no longer alive time doesn’t work the same way.

Anyway, Marcus reflects on his various roles: as a son, a father, a husband, and a civil servant. He’s mostly performed these roles very well, although he’s fallen down hard a few times. His marriage has weathered some storms but he and his wife, Mairead, have a strong, loving, and still passionate relationship. His daughter Agnes is an artist with a promising future ahead of her, and his son Darragh is off spending a year working his way through Australia and other countries far from home. Through Marcus’s recollections we get crisp images of each family member, as well as of some of the politicians and businessmen he clashes with as part of his job. McCormack does a phenomenal job of immersing the reader in Marcus’s life. At one point I was almost afraid to keep reading because I didn’t know if one of his family members would pull through, and I really didn’t want anything bad to happen. This is the power of fiction: in a hundred pages I was fully invested in people that I had no idea I’d even be interested in.

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