As 2017 started, I decided that I clearly wasn’t adding enough books to my TBR and added one more condition to the existing conditions of “one book by writers whose obituaries you come across when timewasting in the Guardian” and “books whose adaptations you see in other media”; namely, “books which win prizes”. I felt like I was missing out by reading all these reports on book prizes but not reading the actual books themselves. Solar Bones is the first one of those to have been put on the list, and now, in 2020, I have finally got there. Yay!
And yes, this prizewinning book is indeed good.
Before I get into it, I’m going to say I spoilered myself when I was 60% through by idiotically skimming Goodreads reviews. And I don’t usually mind spoilers, but this time it did affect the experience a bit. As soon as I spoilered myself I wondered what it would have been like to come to it organically as I read or all at once when the book revealed itself. Don’t be like me. If you enjoy those books that are also whole lives, then keep yourself pure and give this one a go.
Last spoiler warning!
Before I get into the spoilers, though, why not start with The Gimmick (which is a mean way of putting it), or The Eye-Catching Thing about this book, which is the fact that it’s one giant book-length sentence. I don’t know if I’m of an age where such things no longer impress me in themselves, or if I was just a bit grumpy, but I wasn’t particularly keen on the idea of a book-length sentence – if nothing else, all my reading is done on commutes and in the spaces between work and errands and hobbies and whatnot, and where are you supposed to pause to go to bed if there aren’t any sentence breaks, let alone chapters?
I kept remembering that quote by Hitchcock: “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” Bladders are less relevant to books, but there’s still some relationship with human physicality or biology there, you know what I’m saying? It wasn’t the easiest book to put down or pick up again. I did appreciate that he put paragraphs in though! Not just because it made it easier to read, but it added almost a sense of poetry to the prose, a sort of enjambment angle that was really quite lovely.
I do have to say though, that like a lot of Longest Sentences, it… wasn’t technically a single sentence. It just lacked full stops. I saw a Goodreads commenter peeved about the lack of punctuation in dialogue in particular, which I agree was the most egregious trick (some of those really were complete and finished sentences) but it didn’t offend me or anything. I was happy enough to accept it as a style choice by that point. It would have been odder to have put punctuation in them given the rest of it.
Solar Bones is the story of Marcus Conway’s life, as retold through Marcus Conway’s zigzagging thoughts as he sits at his kitchen table, and I must admit that though I enjoyed being in Marcus’s head, I spent some time wondering what the book was saying, and whether it had just been beloved for its style and format. Well. If I hadn’t gone and bliddy spoilered myself I would have found out, wouldn’t I?
Last spoiler warning!
As I knew I wanted to read the book because it was a prizewinner (and from three and a half years ago so it wasn’t as though I remembered much beyond “it is a single sentence”) I didn’t bother reading the blurb or anything when buying it. So when I was faffing around on Goodreads and saw the description contained “blah blah ghostly visits on All Soul’s and this is the story of one such visitation blah blah” I went “…oh.” When I read the irritated review about the sentence thing and got to the bit about “the controversy over the back of the book giving away that Marcus is dead when you only find it out on the last page” I went “Oh.”
I had started to wonder about something by this point, every now and then when we were brought back to him sitting at the kitchen table, and he’s getting more and more restless and is more and more convinced his family will never come by here again I suspected something, but not that he was the ghost.
Well, I’ll never know whether I’d have sussed it now, and I have no one to blame but myself.
As I said, I liked being in Marcus’s head. I have a soft spot for that kind of character, who works with his hands or with solid things, who has the integrity not to sign his name to things that aren’t up to his standards and is immune to the worst kind of politics, baffled but supportive of his children as they charge off in directions totally alien to him. I liked the moments when he got caught up in sudden wonder, and the way he talked about Mairead and his father. I liked the look at 21st century Ireland too, so often eclipsed by its past (not meant in an “Ireland’s past is unimportant” way, but in an “Ireland continues to exist in this the year of our lord 2020” way).
And speaking of the Ireland part, the whole epidemic thing read particularly interestingly in a way I guarantee it didn’t when it first came out. It retained its original power as a sign of a huge problem that won’t go away, and that no one will solve because no one knows who’s to blame because everybody’s to blame, and the knotty complexity of its causes between urban/rural, big/small in a way that I think resonates depressingly throughout the whole Northwest European Archipelago. But it also hit very close to home in a less metaphorical way, these sudden emergency conditions, the politicisation of reality, the abstract treatment of things by faraway speakers which are affecting real people who are much closer to us in visceral ways.
The more I think about it, the more I like it, and I liked it pretty well as I was reading it.