Dublin Unitarian Book Club’s
choice for July 2021.

Solar Bones
Mike McCormack

Marcus Conway is at the kitchen table in his home in West Mayo. He can hear the angelus bells pealing on this November day, the day of All Souls when the dead can return to the land of the living.
          Marcus is reminiscing about his life, about his marriage to Mairead and their life with their two grown children, Agnes and Darragh, and his job as an engineer with the local Council. The author tells this story in one long sentence of stream of consciousness which lends the story an otherworldly element. This lack of punctuation and chapters does require the reader to pay attention but once you adapt to its style you can appreciate the writing which is certainly good enough to pull it together.
          It’s a book about an ordinary man and how he , as a son, brother, husband , father relates to the people in his life. Marcus is trying to make sense of an unstable world and tries to put some control or order into it by making the right decisions as a family man and engineer. His father was aware of the randomness of life as a fisherman and farmer, he deconstructed things to see how they worked. There is logic and order to machinery, construction, things, like the tractor his father took apart and put back together again so he would know how to fix it if he knew how it was made. But life is not a machine, order can collapse into chaos when events happen. The orderly routine life of Marcus’ father rapidly disintegrates when his mother, Onnie , dies. It is a very real and moving description of how vulnerable we really are to the realities of life which are beyond our control, such as death.
          Marcus also tries to keep some order in the world by making the right decisions in his job despite coming up against constant pressure from contractors wanting to take short cuts, the local politicians manoeuvrings for votes, and the Council’s pressure to get the jobs done on time and in budget. Marcus knows that bad decisions lead to bad consequences. It is civic incompetence that leads to an outbreak of cryptosporidium in the town and locality.
          Mairead contracts the disease by drinking water in a restaurant where she, Marcus and their daughter Agnes are celebrating Agnes’ debut art exhibition. The exhibition consists of the text of court reports from local newspapers written in Agnes’ own blood. Marcus struggles to understand this commentary which shows a very unstable world, where a country and culture changed during the boom years of the Celtic Tiger and the bad decisions made then are having their repercussions as all collapses and goes bust, the country is bleeding.
          Mairead is gravely ill and we are brought through the illness and it’s indignities as Marcus nurses her back to health. We are reminded of how fragile life can be and how our bodies can disintegrate through disease, viruses and injury.
          Marcus skypes his son Darragh who is on a working/backpacking year in Australia. Darragh rages against the incompetencies of home, especially as his mother is so ill as a result of such incompetencies. But Marcus knows how difficult it is to stick to your decisions and not bend under the pressures of short cuts, corruption and politics, there are many grey areas to negotiate to try keep order and control in the world.
          This is a very relatable story of a family, it is the ‘Solar Bones’ of family relationships and our community that hold us together in an unstable world which we cannot control for the most part.
          I felt sad at the end of this book, sad for Marcus as he struggled to do the right things in life, to repair the damages of bad decisions. And yet, that is the way of the world, not all stories have a happy ending, but I could have done with a bit more hope.

Alison Claffey
Dublin Unitarian Church

Solar Bones

Sometimes a book can really surprise you. Two years ago my brother handed me a copy of “Solar Bones’. I had never heard of the book before that. I placed it on the table and later moved it to the bookcase without looking at anything except the front cover. Sometime later I picked it up again and opened the first page.
          From that moment I was completely hooked by the unique character of the story and by the complete absence of full stops throughout the text. Initially I thought this would stop me reading the book but by the time I turned to the second page I was oblivious to this feature. As I read on and realised that the fictional narrator was actually dead I gradually began to understand that the absence of full stops gave the story its very unique quality, Conventional sentences and full stops would have broken up the flow of the narrative and made it read like a much more pedestrian story.
          The context for the story is a belief that the dead return to us on All Soul’s Day as the mid day angelus bell tolls. The story begins as the soul of Marcus Conway, now dead, comes back to the home he has lived in with his wife Mairead and their children Agnes and Darragh for twenty five years. The house is empty, the children have left, his wife Mairead is at work and it will be hours before she returns. He decides to go out to buy a paper before he notices that unopened national and local newspapers on the table suggesting that Mairead expected him to come back that day. And so begins his hours of waiting , reading the papers and then reminiscing on the significant moments of his past life which form the core of this novel.
          In just 223 pages the author Mike McCormack skilfully narrates the life story of Marcus Conway in the second half the twentieth century and in the first decade of the twenty first century. This is all contextualised in his descriptions of the lives of Marcus’s parents, grandparents and fore-bearers and in all the beauty, historical poverty and religiosity of county Mayo where the story is situated. Twentieth century local and national politics with all its corruption and shady deals add more interest to the story. The protests against bringing gas ashore at Killala, the imprisonment of many of the protesters, the deaths of three Mayo people involved in the “Troubles”, the sometimes endless rainfall, the uniqueness of town squares, every detail sets the scene for Marcus’ life. The author’s great command of English has helped him enormously in creating the character of Marcus and in sustaining what must have been a challenging narrative.
          Like so many other young people of the time Marcus went to secondary school and then on to college to study and qualify as an engineer. He returns to Mayo and begins to work in the local government office in Westport. He progresses rapidly in his chosen discipline and marries Mairead, a secondary teacher who had spent several years abroad before getting a job in the local convent secondary school.
          As an engineer Marcus is constantly battling with local and aspiring national politicians to spend scarce money on projects which benefit them electorally rather than being used to improve roads and other infrastructure.
          Marcus and Mairead’s first child Agnes becomes an artist. Their second child is Darragh who at the crucial moment in the story is working in Australia. Agnes, now 22 years of age opens an exhibition of her work in Galway. Essentially it is an exhibition of snippets from the court reports of local newspapers all written in a vivid red script on the studio walls by Agnes using some of her own blood. Because of this neither Marcus nor Mairead liked the exhibition but agreed to do their best for their daughter.
          Mairead is the only one of the party to drink water at a restaurant meal after the exhibition . Shortly afterwards she gets violently ill with cryptosporidium. This is all due to flaws in the regional water scheme which makes hundreds of people very ill. The sickness continues for a long time and Marcus has to take time off work to care for her. Eventually she does begin to recover and one morning Marcus goes into Westport to get medication for her. On his way home the indigestion which has been bothering him all day suddenly becomes a full blown heart attack. He pulls in to the side of the road and dies in the car.
          There is a gap of approximately 5 months between his death and his “appearance ?” at the house on All Saint’s day.
          The midday Angelus Bell has a central role in the story for it is its ringing which brings Marcus’ spirit back to his home on All Saints day. In the four or more hours he has to wait until Mairead, his wife , returns to the house the interior monologue which this story is delivered. There is nothing to suggest that he ever gets to meet or communicate with Mairead.
          The closing lines are grim without any real prospect of a blessed eternity to come. The very best that maybe on offer is
“…nothing else for it but to keep going one foot in front of the other
          the head down and keep going
          keep going
          keep going to f..k”

          The majority of members of the book club liked “Solar Bones” . Several of us had read it twice. For myself I feel I gained a lot from reading it a second time and I know I will dip into it again from time to time.
          We wondered why the story had not achieved international fame and could come to no conclusion other than that the language might be too Mayo and Ireland centric for many readers outside of country.
          For myself, I hope that this review might encourage others to read this book. If you do I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.

Tony Shine
Dublin Unitarian Church