Tuesday, 22 November 2016


When Galway-based writer Mike McCormack's novel Solar Bones won both the Goldsmiths Prize and Novel of the Year at the 2016 Bord Gáis Book Awards, I was just a little bit too excited. 

His triumph brought with it a minor victory for me, on both a personal and professional level, as throughout my life I’ve had a difficult relationship with literature. 

Thrust ahead a year at school by educators who didn't understand the difference between intelligence and academic ability, I found myself surrounded by incredibly clever students. 

English Public Schools exist to produce candidates most likely to succeed at Oxford and Cambridge. While many from that class proceeded to do just that, for me university was never an option.

Every teenager needs to go through a phase when nobody appears to understand them, and this was mine. Everyone in my life kept telling me how clever I was; that my failures were the result of sloth and indifference; that if only I worked a bit harder, I might just surprise myself.

School reports through the years inevitably said the same thing: ‘Could do better.’

Nobody listened when I tried to explain that I had genuine trouble assimilating information from text books. Then a powerful cocktail of hormones and Punk Rock met this onslaught of expectation, and I reacted in a predictably adolescent way.

It went something like this:

‘You insist that I read your books? Well I won’t read them. I won’t even go to university, because I'm fed up to the back teeth with being told to learn. Yes, of course I want to learn, and will continue to do so joyously throughout my life, but there’s more to learning than books by old fogeys and fathomless farts whose language I cannot take in. I will work in a warehouse, ride a motorbike and reject your academic world, where I feel inadequate and stupid. I will hitchhike thousands of miles and learn from that as much as your high literature will ever teach me.’

So I did, and along the way devoured books that I read of my own volition. Woody Guthrie’s autobiography Bound For Glory served to rip apart the cosy confines of my bourgeois mind, showing me a braver way. Inspiring and wonderful, I still read it every couple of years.

In my early 20s I found two of my favourite writers. Richard Brautigan wrote with more of a brush than a pen, creating gentle lyrical ethereal prose that kisses poetry. His writing marries romance, wit and magical realism, elevating me to a better place and leaving a wry smile on my face every time.

Charles Bukowski could not appear at first more different, with his low-life misogynistic alcoholic profane guttural. Disgusting and shocking, his own anti-hero, I find him irresistible, as I do Brautigan, because both men are phenomenally honest.

On every course that I teach, a student will ask:

“Can I do this, Charlie? Can I use three narrative voices? Can I tell the story backwards?”

“Yes, you can do anything you want. Absolutely anything at all, as long as it works.”

The advice is a tad oversimplistic, because what works for one might not for another. When I read John Banville’s Booker Prize winning novel The Sea, I was transported back to those dark classroom days. 

The fact that I didn’t like the melancholy drudge of the tone of the book was my own problem: a matter of subjective taste, but I hated feeling excluded and ignorant because I wasn’t familiar with the paintings and artists alluded to so often throughout the book.

That didn’t work for me, because I felt as if he was only writing for a few people; those who might fully appreciate how much he knows.

Absolutely not my kind of book.

Through the guidance of my friend and teacher Iris Leal, I have overcome my dread of anything considered high literature. 30 years ago she insisted that I read Anna Karenina, and I was astonished to find Tolstoy's language so simple and accessible. She led me to Boyhood and Youth, by JM Coetzee, where I adored his uniquely simple voice, and amazed myself to find I loved the work of a Nobel Laureate.

Moving to Galway, I was entranced by Walter Macken’s grit, honesty and grá for the West of Ireland, and recently I've been swept away in a wonderful wave of new Irish writing. 

Lisa McInerney’s Glorious Heresies was a tremendous piece of storytelling, as shocking and exciting as Paul Abbot’s Shameless, when it first appeared on TV. 

Donal Ryan’s Spinning Heart was a huge hit, but it’s his short stories that occasionally make me catch my breath. Eimear McBride's Lesser Bohemians and Kevin Barry's City of Bohane lead the charge with their stylised language and alternative takes on reality.

My friend Claire-Louise Bennett’s astonishing debut Pond has taken the literary establishment by storm. A reviewer claimed she had reinvented the non-novel, and no, I don’t know what that means either, but away from all the literary la-di-da, her book is a great read.

My little victory?

As I joined in the single sentence that is Solar Bones I felt no fear. Immediately aware that this book was Mayo man Mike McCormack's masterpiece, I felt deeply thankful that it never once impressed upon me the weight of its own cleverness.

A slice of West of Ireland Zeitgeist; a philosophical pondering on life and death; a fascinating insight into the mind of an engineer; a perfectly drawn microcosm of the political attitudes of this nation, past and present and a comforting illustration of a loving family’s life, Solar Bones is a triumph.

More than that, for me it felt great to love a book that others then classified as high literature.

There’s hope for me yet.

© Charlie Adley

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