Kevin Moran
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Mike McCormack wins the 2016 Goldsmiths Prize for his novel Solar Bones

A Goldsmiths Prize judge on the third Irish winner of the award for innovative fiction, run in association with the New Statesman.

I am the sort of reader who likes to put a pencil mark beside lines that I particularly love in a book. The marks stop about halfway through my copy of Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones because there were too many phrases to note. Here is an observation of a bread knife given as a wedding present 20 years ago, held out to the narrator by his wife: “it had become rounded and worn with the bevelled edges of the ash handle faintly bleached from continual washing”.

Marcus Conway, the narrator, considers how the knife had its beginnings “in the murk of prehistory as a blunt river cobble or shard of flint, through all its brittle bronze and ferric variants . . . till it arrived safely in her hand”. Marcus is an engineer who lives with Mairead in the west of Ireland, their two children grown and living their own lives; a long-married couple finding a way through their later years along the path of language that McCormack has built for them. This is an ordinary story told in the most extra­ordinary words, and I was thrilled, as a judge of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize, to be able to add it to the list of worthy winners.

The Goldsmiths Prize was launched in 2013, in association with the New Statesman, “to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form”. Having A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride as its inaugural winner, the prize lived up to this manifesto. McBride had struggled to find a publisher for nine years before the book appeared from the tiny, independent Galley Beggar Press; it went on to win the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and its author – whose second novel also appeared on our shortlist this year – is now recognised as one of the most exciting voices in English. Now in its fourth year, the Goldsmiths Prize has surely proved that “experimental” writing can find a large and appreciative readership.

Remarkably, McCormack is, after Eimear McBride and Kevin Barry, the third Irish novelist to win the Goldsmiths Prize: in the four years it has been running, the prize has not yet been won by an English writer (in 2014 it was awarded to the Scottish author Ali Smith). In an interview with the New Statesman McCormack described British fiction as “dominated by an intellectual conservatism”, suggesting that there has been a “rejuvenation of the experimental pulse in Irish fiction”, partly because writers were at last able to “digest the legacy” of their literary “Father, Son and Holy Ghost”: James Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett. 

McCormack, aged 50, is no novice. His first book, the collection of stories Getting It in the Head, won the Rooney Prize (for a promising Irish writer under 40) in 1996, and was a New York Times notable book of the year. His first novel, Crowe’s Requiem, followed in 1998, but it was another seven years until Notes from a Coma came out – not through Jonathan Cape, his former publisher, but through the indie Soho Press, the book’s extravagant footnotes apparently being a bit rich for the mainstream.

Solar Bones, published by Tramp Press, based in Dublin – another independent imprint that has been rewarded for its boldness (even if, because the headquarters are in Ireland, this book was ineligible for the Man Booker Prize, which considers only work published in the UK). It is a virtuosic performance, a man’s life told in a single sentence that never seems breathless or forced.

Marcus looks back over his life on 2 Nov­ember, the Feast of All Souls, part of the celebration of the Day of the Dead – and the day, as it happens, that the judges met to decide our winner. Chance or fate, you decide: but it felt like fate to me when I first opened the book and was swept into Marcus’s life by McCormack’s narrative voice. Whether he is describing the pouring of concrete or how Marcus tends to his wife, who has been felled by a terrible bout of food poisoning – which works as a metaphor for Ireland’s economic distress – McCormack’s writing has a quality of attention that caused Blake Morrison, the chair of the judges, to proclaim this novel “a masterpiece”. So it is: a book that stands out despite the strength of the 2016 shortlist. We had six remarkable books to choose from. It was a hard choice, but I am delighted by this winner and hope that McCormack’s work finds the wide audience it deserves. 

Mike McCormack will be in conversation with Blake Morrison, the chair of the judges, and Tom Gatti, the NS culture editor, on 26 November at the Cambridge Literary Festival.

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia