Mia Gallagher on Solar Bones: ‘an exquisite, dense ballad of a book’

Marcus’s endless moment reminds me of Sebald’s masterly Austerlitz. This is a work that demands attention. Miss a line, you miss something important

Shall we dance?

The first page is an invitation. Facing a set of ghosted-out not-quite parallel lines – gently intersecting, like piano strings – is something which looks like a poem. No capital letters. No full stops. Nine instances of “bell”. Short lines creeping across the page like horizontal responses to the vertical graphics. And suddenly that makes me think of art and a show I saw in the Tate years ago. Angled verticals and stubby horizontals: I’m in Mondrian country, before he discovered primary colours. I’m in the Netherlands, a low, sea-bound place where the horizontal line is everything, marking the end of the known world and the beginning of the unknown.

But hang on. Mike McCormack’s elegy for Marcus Conway – “man and boy, father and son, husband and engineer” – is set nowhere near the Netherlands. It’s rugged west Mayo, the lower lip of Clew Bay, the road between Louisburgh and Westport, gazing north to Mulranny and Achill, thinking behind itself to eerie Killary Harbour. This is a part of the world I know, having holidayed there every year as a kid. You couldn’t find a landscape more magnificent or changeable, more unlike Holland. Yet – and here I find myself backtracking again, an experience I will have repeatedly, reading and thinking about this exquisite, dense ballad of a book.

Solar Bones is not set in the Netherlands, but it’s set in a Netherland – an unknown territory between life and death, being and oblivion, formlessness and the world of things. The worldofthings can only be known through light – and now those piano strings become something else in my mind. The slow, angled rays of November sunlight, which like the soundwaves carried from the Angelus bell tolling through the novel’s early pages, have summoned Marcus’ shade out of death into not-quite-being, to return to his family kitchen and kill time in an eternal moment where past and present layer and loop each other, where there are no full stops, where sentences never begin and never end, where memories are indented within each other and images recur, gaining depth and significance with each echo.


With some books I fall in love with characters or a world or a sentence. With Solar Bones it is the Things that got me. The Massey Ferguson tractor so carefully disembowelled by Marcus's father. A broken wind turbine on a trailer, stretchered like an emergency patient up Westport's main street. The three layers of irreconcilable concrete, already starting to shear away from each other, the result of a dodgy back-room deal between contractors to carve up the pickings of a primary school build, itself a callous angling for votes. The Imperial Hotel between Louisburgh and Westport – and what a magnificent depiction of a Thing McCormack achieves here – a beautiful structure descending into glorious decrepitude, its maple-floored dance hall full of Angus cattle, who "lie down and close their eyes, chewing the cud" until morning when they stumble out into the fields again. The bread knife, its handle softened, its blade scored with sharpen-lines, which has come to symbolise something about Marcus's marriage with the resilient Mairead. And then there's the sandwich that Marcus eats on a gorgeous morning in a Westport coffee shop; a humble sandwich that, on this most important day, overwhelms him with gratitude for the simple gift of life.

Marcus is/was an engineer, a man working in a man’s world. A practical man, who understands realpolitik. His conversations with blustering contractors, wheedling politicians and terrified craftsmen are earthy, funny, stupid, utterly believable. His conversations with his children are probing, often awkward. He is clever, diligent, knowing, wise. Open-minded, to a point. Yet he can’t help being scored by the sharpen-lines of his own conditioning, the weight of the collective West. His father’s troubling, tender presence percolates every page; a gifted proto-engineer, a skilled fisherman-farmer, a wildly inventive storyteller. But Marcus’s mother, Onnie – like his sister, Eithne – is far more shadowy. I remember Onnie’s stubborn declaration: “when I’m dead I’m dead and the dead don’t care” – but not because of her. Because of the impact it has on the men, Marcus and his son, Darragh. Her name, starting with an inverted “no”, makes me think of Beckett’s names for his characters. Is Onnie really only a big No, the void Marcus has emerged from, that he’ll inevitably have to sink back into?

Gender loading seeps into Marcus’s own nuclear family. He attributes greater value to his son Darragh, off on a year’s walkabout in Australia, than his combative, mercurial daughter, artist Agnes. Darragh, Marcus says, and says it often, has the talent; Agnes is just determined. Marcus doesn’t understand much of what Darragh’s on about, yet he insists proudly to Mairead that Darragh’s gnomic utterances weren’t licked off the stones. I don’t believe him: Darragh doesn’t sound anything like Marcus, whose thought- and speech-lines gracefully weave the transcendent and the prosaic. It’s sense-making Agnes, whose conversations Marcus often drifts away from, who thinks more like her dad. But Darragh isn’t just Darragh; to Marcus, he is bloodline, continuity, in a way Agnes never will be. Agnes can tear herself in two, literally putting her blood on the line for her father’s attention, but by dint of her gender she will never be Marcus, let alone the thing her dad wants most, his own father back, alive, with his wits intact. It’s only in Darragh’s wild, bearded absence, splintering over a Skype connection thousands of miles away, that Marcus can latch onto an echo of his father. It’s a worrying echo, of Conway senior in his last, unravelling months – Blake’s engineer-God gone mad – and makes me fear for Darragh. Though I’m grateful too, that whatever dissolution may be lying in wait in his son’s roaming mind is something Marcus himself will never have to experience.

I can’t talk about Solar Bones without talking about Mairead. You can fall in love with a character for many reasons but it’s Mairead’s first words – “fucking bridge construction” – that won my heart. She says it early in their marriage while pregnant, on discovering Marcus’s first and, he claims, only infidelity. I don’t remember much more of what Mairead says, but unlike Onnie, she is there, a vivid, guiding North Star through all of Marcus’s memories and invocations. If Solar Bones is a love song, then it’s one dedicated in equal measure to the art of engineering and Mairead. After she leaves him, Marcus drives up through the “badlands of North Mayo” to claim her back. Unshaven and desperate (Blake’s God again), he doesn’t get past the patriarchal Non of her father, but trapped by her own conservatism – or is it love? – she does return. Later, Marcus’s children rib him that his two years in a seminary were God’s plan, a divinely-ordained boot camp equipping him to seduce his educated bride through elegant metaphysical argument.

Theirs is a marriage that’s wonderfully real, worn-down at the edges like the handle of their old bread-knife, the blade of their connection sharpened by betrayal and children and the startling gift of an empty nest. For half of the novel, Mairead is ill, a “ruined princess” struck down by the cryptosporidium virus. A country poisoned by its own shite. But like all McCormack’s images, Mairead refuses to bend to a single meaning. She’s not Mother Ireland – at least, not just that. She’s herself: constant gardener, patient, wry wife, engaged mother, sophisticate in a provincial world, sexy buttoned-up schoolteacher getting fucked from behind by a rugged layabout. And ultimately, she’s a survivor. She’s the one who’ll have to live through the recession, the disasters that’ll happen to her kids and that they’ll bring on themselves. She’s the one who’ll have to carry the weight of Marcus’s absence through the rest of her life. What’s going to happen to her, I was left wondering? Will she retreat into herself, become, like Onnie, another No? Or will she take flight – echoing Agnes’s magical lift-off from the roof of City Hall – and carve out a new shape of being for herself, beyond the intersecting, eternally falling shadows of Marcus’s last trapped moment of return?

Keep going to fuck, is the novel's last phrase. Another throwback to Beckett. But also perhaps a hint? "Fuck" as a place; like hell or Connaught? Or is it the action, no, the impulse – that suspended intention to fuck – that I should be looking at? Is new life about to emerge? The moment the atoms that once collided to make Marcus return to the void, they'll be reborn in a new form? A new Thing, even?

I’ll have to read it again, I think. Go back to those fullstopless lines, where punctuation is “and” or “so” or “but”, an occasional comma or dash, the punctuation of how people think. I’ll have to return to Marcus’s endless moment, his single sentence that reminds me of nothing so much as Sebald’s masterly Austerlitz. This is a work that demands attention. Miss a line, you miss something important. And isn’t it wonderful, to be asked to give writing this level of attention – not just skim over it, or click a like, but to engage with it, like a dance partner or conversant, to take it apart, even, and marvel at its intricate workings, to become – yet again – young Marcus, falling in love with a tenderly deconstructed Thing?