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.
This article appears in the 10 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse