I am still not quite sure why I didn’t care much for Solar Bones by Mike McCormack. It’s the kind of book I should really like — lyrical, character drive, meditative, stylistically interesting. But it just came across as flat to me. The style, without a single full-stop or quotation mark for conversation and only commas and line/paragraph breaks so that it reads as one long run-on, began as being interesting then got tiring and became pointless only to finally in the end make sense as to why — a kind of life passing before your eyes thing — wasn’t enough to make up for all the work.
The story is a first person narrative of Marcus Conway, civil engineer, husband, father of two grown children. The narrative is not quite linear though there is a kind of chronology to it, an associational pattern of present to past and back to the present as thoughts trigger memories that trigger other memories. Conway’s is a regular kind of life. He isn’t a superstar, there are no disasters, there was a brief, early affair when his wife was pregnant but they were able to work it out.
His children are a puzzle to him. His son, Darragh, is smart but refuses to lead a regular kind of responsible life instead choosing to take his savings and go to Australia to do community work, farm work, temporary jobs that generally require physical labor. His daughter, Agnes, is an artist whose first big show greatly upsets him. Instead of the oils she usually works in, her first exhibit is work painted with her own blood. And in spite of it being a great success for a number of reasons, all Marcus can worry about is what kind of father people think he must be for his daughter to use her own blood in her art.
He seems rather clueless when it comes to his wife too. She is smart, beautiful, self-assured, a woman he thought out of his league. He constantly marvels that Mairead ever chose to marry him. And I found myself wondering the same thing. Because it seems like Mairead is the one who does all the emotional work in the family. She is like the glue holding them all together. I was really annoyed by this because more often than not, women are the ones responsible for this work in addition to running the household and holding down paid work. What did she ever see in him?
Towards the end of the book Mairead falls seriously ill as she becomes one of many ill people in a public health crisis having to do with contaminated drinking water. Marcus takes time off work in spite of being in the midst of some big projects, to care for his wife. His success at caring for her through the illness becomes a point of pride, proof that he isn’t so incapable after all. He even prods his wife into telling him what a good job he did. I could be okay with that if it was the beginning of a change, a turning over a new leaf sort of thing. But then, right after, he goes out to get Mairead some medicine and has a heart attack and dies! What the heck?
So what is the point of it all? That Marcus is just a regular guy doing regular guy things with a regular guy life? A kind of modern day Every Man? I couldn’t help but think Mairead and the kids would grieve for a while but would be just fine without him. I had difficulty engaging with the story. I didn’t care about Marcus. I didn’t want to spend time with him and his memories but wanted to know more about Mairead and his kids because they seemed much more interesting.
Solar Bones has gotten quite a bit of praise. It was on the long list for the Booker. It won several prizes in Ireland. I was excited to read it but it turned out to just not be the book for me. If you have been planning on reading it yourself, please don’t let my dislike of it stop you. Every book its reader after all; everything might click perfectly for you. If it does, let me know. I am curious to hear what you liked about it.