Book review: Solar Bones

After being dropped by Cape, Mike McCormack, once described as Ireland’s most underrated writer, has returned with an original novel of ideas, writes Sue Leonard.

Mick McCormack

Tramp Press, €15;

Kindle, €12.39

MIKE MCCORMACK is happy. 

It’s the afternoon of the launch of his latest novel, Solar Bones, and whatever reception the book might receive, he is satisfied that everyone involved in its production has given it their very best shot.

“The publicist is great. The designer, the type-setter — and you can’t ask for anything more. I can sleep easy.”

Once described as Ireland’s most underrated writer, it’s been a while since McCormack’s last novel, but it’s been well worth the wait. 

Solar Bones is a glorious read. 

Set in Louisburgh, it is full of meditations on the politics and skulduggery encountered by an engineer in rural Ireland.

It’s a great reading experience — letting your mind flow with the narrator’s myriad thoughts, and it makes a refreshing change from the plethora of overly plotted high concept novels that have been spilling through my letterbox of late.

Mick McCormack
Mick McCormack

“It started with an image of this man, blundering around his own house and being confused. 

"It’s the middle of the day and the middle of the week, and it lends itself to all these questions. 

"Who is he? Why is he here? And where is his family? The 200 pages that follow are, basically, an elucidation of that first image.”

As a whole, he says, it’s a hymn to engineers, a hymn to County Mayo, and a hymn to ordinary life and domesticity. 

When I suggest that it could also be described as a state of the nation book, McCormack agrees.

“There is a bit of that; and it comes from a consideration. I often wonder what architects and engineers were doing during the Celtic Tiger. 

"There were so many bad constructions, and engineering decisions made. 

"This book gave me an opportunity to discuss and analyse it; that is one aspect, but I became more interested in it as a portrait of a family.”

Middle aged Marcus, the engineer who, working for the council, narrates the book, is a little bemused by life. 

After some early indiscretions, his relationship with teacher wife Mairéad seems affectionate; and though he loves his spiky artist daughter, Agnes, and his brilliant but lazy son, he can’t quite get his head around their current occupations and obsessions.

There is nothing traditional about this wonderfully written novel; least of all the audacious revelation at the end which makes sense of the whole. 

And although many in the publishing world admired the author’s superlative writing, it was a while before McCormack found a publisher.

“When Notes from a Coma was published 10 years ago, it was really well received, but it fell off the cliff commercially. 

"Because of that, when a periodic cull happened in publishing houses I got dropped by Jonathan Cape. That was a really serious setback.

“When Solar Bones was finished, I scratched my head, and I hoped it was good but didn’t know. 

"My wife read it and thought I was on the right track and my agent, Marianne Gunn O’Connor was excited by it. 

"But when she showed it to publishers, there was always this, ‘Christ you can write, but...’ Some looked to their sales figures, others didn’t like the style of it.”

Then Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff of Tramp Press became involved. This is the duo, who, having discovered Donal Ryan’s debut novel on the slush pile at Lilliput Press, gained the confidence to set up on their own.

“They rang and said ‘we would like to take you for something to eat.’ They talked for 10 minutes about the book. 

"They didn’t balk or moan; they weren’t fazed or frightened, they just went for it. I came home and rang Marianne and said, “They got it. They understood it completely.

“I have worked with publishers in England, America and Ireland, and hands down, Tramp are the best. They were smarter than anyone else I have worked with. 

"The editorial process was intellectually rewarding; they helped me achieve the book I wanted making it two or three degrees more polished.”

Like his protagonist, McCormack lives in Louisburgh. Born in London, he holidayed with his Mayo-based grandparents aged three, and at the end of the summer, his parents left him with them in North Mayo when they returned to London.

“That sounds odd to you?” He laughs. 

“It was a thrilling experience. My memory keeps defaulting to it in a number of ways.”

He lived with them for two or three years, and then his parents, returning to live in Ireland, picked him up and took him to Louisburgh. 

It was a happy childhood, but when McCormack was eighteen, his father died of a heart attack.

“I was the eldest of four, and I felt a sense of responsibility. I was the man of the house and I had to get a qualification that would earn me a living. 

"So I went to university to study engineering, but I knew within three hours that it was not going to suit me. I’m a poor academic; bad at science and remedial at maths.” 

Eventually, he studied philosophy and English, but retained his admiration for engineers.

“I love what they do. They create the world around us and are responsible for the signature of our times. 

"The things we value; the roads, bridges, water plants, hospitals and libraries — those are the things people will read of us in the future.”

There are two incidents in the book — where a politician puts pressure on Marcus to make quite crazy decisions; in one case making a road look shiny so that the town will gain more points in the Tidy Towns Competition. 

The residents don’t care that this will make the road potentially lethal.

“I talked to an engineer and that is a real incident. It’s exactly as I said. 

"The engineer cautioned that the braking distance was huge, and that with water, cars will slide along. They’re courting disaster, but they’re house-proud.”

When I ask was the book a joy to write, he says he can’t actually remember writing it.

“I must have wrote it,” he says, frowning. 

“I certainly have a memory of the editorial process, but I have no memory of the writing up to that. It’s a book of ideas in many ways, but I don’t seem to have given it thought. 

"I don’t remember it presenting difficulties in the way my other novels did, but it can’t have been plain sailing because it took me five years at least.”

Almost three years ago, at the age of 48, McCormack became a dad for the first time. His wife is an artist, so there isn’t a wage coming into the house. 

He teaches creative writing to keep body and soul together, picking up work in NUI Galway, The American College in Merrion Square, and the Irish Writer’s Centre, as well as teaching American students on-line.

“It’s very hard. I can feel myself grieve that my child, Saul, might take up this trade. 

"Honest to God, I have a happy vision of him being an accountant or a systems analyst, whatever that is.”

If this is a novel of ideas, then so is this an interview of one. 

Nearing the end of our allotted time, Mike launches into a quest to work out the chances of the two of us talking today.

“The odds stacked against it are astronomical,” he says. 

“This moment has its genesis right back at the big bang. An incredible causal sequence had to hold for this moment to be as it is and not otherwise. 

"If I think about that for long enough I will get vertigo out of sheer wonder and astonishment.” 

Leaving the author, thoughts whirling through my head, I’m in danger of getting vertigo too.


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