Thursday, February 21, 2013

Notes from a Coma

Mike McCormack’s Notes from a Coma made quite a splash in Ireland when it was published there in 2005, receiving such a good reception from readers and critics that it was shortlisted in 2006 for the Irish Book of the Year award. Now it makes its American debut as a Soho Paperback Original.

The book has a strange feel to it.  Because it was written eight years ago, it is set in the recent past – but with just enough spin on that past to give the story a bit of a surrealistic science fiction feel.  Largely character-driven, Notes from a Coma tells the story of JJ O’Malley, a young man characterized as “someone who is too smart for his own good but not smart enough to see that.”

Anthony O’Malley, a lonely Irish farmer, plucked JJ from a filthy Romanian orphanage not long after the overthrow of that country’s communist government.  It was a relatively simple cash transaction (something that would haunt JJ’s self-esteem when he figured it out), and in a matter of days the na├»ve Irishman was back on the farm with his months-old son.  And, with much help from a neighbor’s wife who had a young son of her own, the brilliant JJ O’Malley thrived in his new world.

JJ O’Malley is one of those students who have their teachers scrambling just to keep up with them, much less stay one step ahead.  He fits in well, the community takes pride in him, and he has long-term girlfriend and a best friend he considers to be more his brother.  Then one day JJ’s emotional security is devastated by a shocking loss that no one can help him work his way through.  But when the young man ends up on a prison ship docked in nearby Killary Harbor, part of an ambitious medical experiment he has volunteered for, the town is still proud of him.

The European Penal Commission is looking for an alternative it can offer to first-time offenders being incarcerated for what it considers to be “less serious” crimes.  Perhaps, placing these offenders into a deep coma under strict medical supervision for the duration of their sentences is the answer.  JJ and his fellow volunteers are on the prison ship to test the theory.

Mike McCormack
Notes from a Coma is a story told simultaneously at two levels.  Many, if not most, of the book’s pages include supplementary footnotes that explain everything from the evolution of the Sommos project (as the study is called) to details concerning brain activity and European Union politics.  While the notes do add greatly to an understanding of what is happening on board the Event Horizon, readers will have to decide how best to approach them.  They might want to read the notes page-by-page as they are presented, read each chapter’s narrative before reading that chapter’s footnotes, or even skip (something I do not recommend) the footnotes altogether. 

Although I would have preferred an ending with more closure, Notes from a Coma is an intriguing novel that touches on many of the moral and ethical questions of the day.  Mike McCormack is one to watch.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)


  1. Sounds to me like this book should definately be considered science fiction. Also sounds like an interesting book.

    I love the free libraries, too. If I can get my hands on some scrap lumber.....

  2. You're right, has more actual "science" in it than many books of the genre. It's just such a recent past thing, and so literary, that it sneaks up on you and suddenly you realize you're probably reading a scifi novel. :-)

  3. It certainly sounds interesting, and current - there was so much adoption of Romanian children in the 90's, and it is interesting how this cultural shock - even though the child is a baby when adopted, it's still a shock when you discover it for yourself - is used as the background to this novel. I think I will look for this novel when it comes out. Good review, thanks, Sam! I'm curious to see what effect being in the coma has on the patients - do they age? what would it feel like to sleep for two or five years, is the disorientation similar to discovering you are adopted? Interesting thoughts.

  4. Definitely an interesting book, Susan. Notes from a Coma will make you think a bit, and it offers an interesting insight or two into life in rural Ireland. Unfortunately, IMO, the book ends just as some of the issues you are curious about would have been logically answered.