A Little Village on the Edge of the World

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
    Canongate, 272 pp, £8.99, May 2017, ISBN 978 1 78689 127 3

Mike McCormack, the winner of last year’s Goldsmiths Prize with Solar Bones, could seem to be redressing a balance by making his book a single undivided utterance. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, the novel by Eimear McBride that won the inaugural prize in 2013, was prodigal in its use of full stops: there were often three or four in a line of print. By banishing the mark altogether McCormack brings its frequency in the two books – taken together – close to a statistical norm.

Of the two experiments it’s McCormack’s that sounds the more intimidating to a potential reader, but in fact the book is all flow. It’s not that the novel is formally a single sentence, but that there is never a point of rest in its lucid unfolding. Individually the pages are laid out so as to reassure, with indented lines marking off familiarly shaped blocks of text. These are placebo paragraphs, whose endings promise the eye an opportunity to take the equivalent of a breath, though a voice reading the book aloud would be cued to carry on across the gap. McCormack seems to relish inserting breaks just where the momentum is most insistent, several times ending a pseudo-paragraph with ‘so that’, in a way that revokes the apparent permission to pause, the holding back not separable from the pushing forward. The conventions of the book seem to forbid any interruption to the experience of reading, but the devoured-it-at-one-sitting formula so faithfully invoked by reviewers is pious fantasy. Putting Solar Bones down takes on the status of an accepted bit of bad behaviour, in principle disapproved of but indispensable in practice, like a cigarette break in the workplace.

At the beginning of the book Marcus Conway, a middle-aged civil engineer, is standing in his kitchen in Louisburgh, County Mayo, listening to the midday Angelus. He stays there for the rest of the book, physically rooted in a way his thoughts constantly stress (‘here in this same kitchen’, ‘here on this kitchen floor’, ‘on this kitchen floor/not four feet from this table’), but ranging freely over the past. He’s – yes – examining his life, his slightly odd-couple but more than halfway successful marriage to Mairead, much more sophisticated in outlook than him, at least when they met, and their two children, Agnes and Darragh, whose characters have been in some marginal way formed by the tensions of the household but who are now viable independent adults. The endless unspooling of reflection can be interpreted either as a daring suspension of forward movement in narrative or as a canny tidying up of interior monologue, refining away the incoherence of mental life. Either way, the experience is involving and seductive, and the few occasions when Marcus’s thoughts make an abrupt swerve have considerable impact. The first page seems to promise high modernism of a retro sort, with its overlapping incantatory phrases echoing the clanging of the call to worship (‘the bell/the bell as/hearing the bell as/hearing the bell as standing here/the bell being heard standing here’), but the tone of the book as it settles becomes much more prosaic and reader-friendly.

Marcus’s is a life in which the old ways for a man to find his bearings are confirmed rather than threatened. In one charged passage he remembers the time his father took on modern technology using the local lore of the sea, setting himself to locate ‘The Maids’, a rock shelf where crabs and lobsters multiply, as accurately as a newfangled onboard electronic plotter: ‘what really hung in the balance was the possibility that a good man, through no fault of his own, but by way of received wisdom and immemorial faith, may have lived an important part of/his life warped in error and foolishness’. Luckily the sonar readings and the traditional method – heading straight out from the bottom of Kerrigan’s land, bringing the spire of the Protestant church in the north out with you, until Matthew Ryan’s hay shed in the south comes into view round the end of the headland – precisely coincide.

Past and present corroborate each other, and domestic concerns share a common centre with the grandest imaginable vistas of time. There’s a brilliant passage about the bread knife Marcus and Mairead were given as a wedding present, which she holds up only a couple of years into their marriage so that he can see how

it had become rounded and worn with the bevelled edges of the ash handle faintly bleached from continual washing and the blade itself showing signs of all the times it had been sharpened against the steel, those fine lines angled back from the edge as she held it up by the blade, the moment gleaming in the sort of light that offered a clear view of the knife’s descent from its first consideration in the murk of prehistory as a blunt river cobble or a shard of flint, through all its brittle bronze and ferric variants, step by step down the causal line of descent till it arrived safely in her hand, honed and fully evolved through balanced alloys, all its clumsiness pared away but carrying the marks of frequent use which prompted her to say

I love that we’re living the kind of life where things are wearing down around us

This passage has its own alloyed composition, made up as it is of six parts magnificent rhetorical feeling to four parts copper-bottomed blarney.

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