Following a scalding row with her mother, fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes slams the door on her old life. But Holly is no typical teenage runaway: A sensitive child once contacted by voices she knew only as 'the radio people,' Holly is a lightning rod for psychic phenomena. Now, as she wanders deeper into the English countryside, visions and coincidences reorder her reality until they assume the aura of a nightmare brought to life.
The central character is one Holly Sykes, who with her brother Jacko, is born with an "invisible eye" and psychic sensitivity. The novel follows her from a self-absorbed 15 year-old to a wise and self-sacrificing 76. For a good part of the book she is the first person, present tense narrator. When we meet her the second time, she's easy to like, but the book rests on her shoulders, and a reader looking for some depth doesn't find much. Maybe Holly is the reason I was disappointed. I'll be glad to give Mr. Mitchell another chance, but this is not the book that people will remember him for.
As David Mitchell readers will know, there both is and isn’t a typical David Mitchell novel. They vary in genre, style, narrative, time, and place, often cycling rapidly within the same chapter, let alone book. In a sense this is what defines the typical David Mitchell novel (with the possible exception of Black Swan Green). And with this absurdly bad understanding of his work, The Bone Clocks is the most David Mitchell of David Mitchell books. It deals with the themes and settings and realism (and even a character) of Black Swan Green, and it also jumps around in time and place and narrator like Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, and deals with scary cults and rebirths and souls, like well, like most of his books. And yes a moon grey cat pops by fortuitously, as do a number of other characters of varying centrality from other books.
The parts I liked the best were the most real, or the parts in which the characters struggled in a realistic way with the unreal forces and situations in which they found themselves. The unreal stuff was good too, though it got a little dense at times for my liking, and I just wasn’t as compelled by it –even though it is the driving action of the novel– as I was by the day-to-day lives of the characters. I would hungrily devour a full novel centered on a young Hugo Lamb (pre-major-plot-point-that-I-won’t-divulge-here) or an any-aged Crispin Hershey. These are the bad boys of the book, to a greater and lesser extent, and they are full of snarky fun and artful wit. For my money Hugo and his college chums chatting and boasting in the pub, with every phrase and bon mot veiled in that particular coat of irony that smart young college boys go in for, was the best part of the book.
But Holly Sykes is the heart of the book, and the reason you keep reading. Mitchell did a wonderful job of showing us snippets of her life, and simply let us watch her evolve into the woman she becomes in a way that was graceful and real and satisfying.
So even though the more fantastical portions of the story just barely held this back from the perfect heights of Cloud Atlas, this is still a magnificent book. If you loved Cloud Atlas, and you really should have, then you will also love this; just be prepared to suspend your suspension of disbelief if you don’t care about some of the more mystical aspects of the book. The characters and the dialogue and the writing and the realism are more than enough to make this a truly great book.
But The Bone Clocks is also a fantasy novel. It involves – not to give too much away, as far too many reviews do – a battle between immortals. These figures remain in the background at first, in strange encounters which are alarming and intriguing. (There’s a particularly memorable scene as character Hugo Lamb is confronted in the Christmas snow outside his house by a homeless man he spoke to earlier that day, and it becomes apparent that the man’s body is being possessed by someone else entirely.) This background war eventually bursts into the main scene in the book’s penultimate chapter, and perhaps goes a little too far in terms of its expository vocabulary. Again, I don’t wish to give too much away, but while I would have been disappointed if this aspect of the book wasn’t explored more deeply, I don’t think I wanted to go that deep, and it was something of a relief when that segment ends and places us in The Bone Clocks’ final section, in a world ravaged by climate change and fuel exhaustion, dominated by a powerful China and slouching towards apocalypse.
The Bone Clocks has predictably been attacked in a number of quarters for committing the cardinal sin of involving genre elements. I can only be puzzled by this. Were these critics reading the same David Mitchell as everyone else over the past fifteen years? Have they not also travelled along the Mongolian steppe as a disembodied spirit in Ghostwritten, lived among the post-apocalyptic Hawaiian tribes in Cloud Atlas, watched a ninja raid on a monastery in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet? Granted, The Bone Clocks does marry the fantasy and science fiction of books like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas and the realism of books like Number9dream and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet much more strongly than anything he has previously written. I can understand why some readers might find it slightly jarring. But if you expected a straight-laced “literary” novel you have only yourself to blame. Mitchell has built his career on the fanciful and the fantastic.
I suspect part of this snobbishness also comes from his writing style. I love Mitchell’s vivacious prose. He has an effortless way of emphasising the colour and the beauty of life, whether he’s painting a picture of a hot summer’s day in Kent, a teenage girl and boy eating fish and chips on a beach and watching the sunset; a heaving pub in snowy Cambridge before the Christmas break; a Swiss chalet in the Alps; the “nuclear sunshine” of my own hometown of Perth, Australia. A lot of critics refer to his style with phrases like “fireworks” or “pyrotechnics” or “colour and movement,” with a disapproving tone. This attitude, I’m sure, comes from the same wellspring as the idea that genre elements are a disqualification. This is what makes a David Mitchell novel such a useful litmus test for determining whether a critic is somebody who genuinely appreciates fiction for the joy and wonder it can bring, or whether they’re a crusty old bore with a rigid belief that serious fiction isn’t supposed to be colourful, imaginative, or popular; someone who believes that Real Literature is supposed to be austere.
Enough of that, anyway. I enjoyed The Bone Clocks tremendously, as I expected to. It falters in parts and is not quite the brilliant novel Cloud Atlas was, but it is nonetheless the best novel I’ve read so far this year, the finest fantasy novel of the year, and another grand accomplishment from one of the world’s greatest living writers.
Mitchell is a masterful author who always brings a lot to the table. In this book, I liked the elements of realism best. The fantasy element is always hovering, but it’s often in the background, and I loved the stories told from four different character’s perspectives, including a teenager going through a rebellious phase, a college-aged hedonist, a war reporter in Iraq, and an aging, bitter author. All of them revolve around or intersect a single woman, Holly Sykes. The book’s final chapter with the world as we know it breaking down was also quite realistic, and in a disturbing way.
By contrast, during the fifth of the six chapters in the book, where the fantasy plot comes to a boil, it felt at times like I was reading a Harry Potter book, and a little predictable. However, that’s not a horrible thing (hey I loved the HP series), and it was certainly never boring.
More importantly to me, Mitchell continues to show his gifts for psychological insight, humor, and cultural breadth. His characters have subtlety. And as in his other books, he’s at his very best in letting the insidiousness of evil unfold and become apparent to the reader gradually.
There are characters that appear from his past novels, most notably Hugo Lamb, who Mitchell fans may remember from Black Swan Green. One of his recurring themes does as well: that evil exists in the world in many forms, and it must be confronted. Mitchell reminds us of the beauty of life and mankind’s finest traits, and at the same how fragile it all is. Change is inevitable, and so is pain. There will always be an ebb and flow between the angels of our better natures, and darkness. Mitchell’s use of either recurring characters or the “reincarnated” here who continue to battle generation after generation are, I think, symbols for the heroes in any day and age who must rise to fight the good fight. He’s an intelligent, inspiring author, and even if fantasy is not your cup of tea, if you suspend disbelief for a bit, you’ll find things you like here.
On heaven, or small, beautiful moments:
“’What if…what if heaven is real, but only in moments? Like a glass of water on a hot day when you’re dying of thirst, or when someone’s nice to you for no reason, or…’ Mam’s pancakes with Mars Bar sauce; Dad’s dashing up from the bar just to tell me, ‘Sleep tight don’t let the bedbugs bite’; or Jacko and Sharon singing ‘For She’s a Squishy Marshmalow’ instead of ‘For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ every single birthday and wetting themselves even though it’s not at all funny; and Brendan giving his old record player to me instead of one of his mates. ‘S’pose heaven’s not like a painting that’s just hanging there forever, but more like … like the best song anyone ever wrote, but a song you only catch in snatches, while you’re alive, from passing cars, or…upstairs windows when you’re lost…’”
“’Power is lost or won, never created or destroyed. Power is a visitor to, not a possession of, those it empowers. The mad tend to crave it, many of the sane crave it, but the wise worry about its long-term side effects. Power is crack cocaine for your ego and battery acid for your soul. Power’s comings and goings, from host to host, via war, marriage, ballot box, diktat, and accident of birth, are the plot of history. The empowered may serve justice, remodel the Earth, transform lush nations into smoking battlefields, and bring down skyscrapers, but power itself is amoral.’ Immaculee Constantin now looks up at me. ‘Power will notice you. Power is watching you now. Carry on as you are, and power will favor you. But power will also laugh at you, mercilessly, as you lie dying in a private clinic, a few fleeting decades from now. Power mocks all its illustrious favorites as they lie dying. ‘Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away.’”
On youth, from Joseph Conrad’s short story ‘Youth’:
“By all that’s wonderful it is the sea, I believe, the sea itself – or is it youth alone? Who can tell? But you here – you all had something out of life: money, love – whatever one gets on shore – and, tell me, wasn’t that the best time, that time we were young at sea; young and had nothing, on the sea that gives nothing, except hard knocks – and sometimes a chance to feel your strength – that only – what you all regret?’”
In fact, while this book can be called a lot of things, ‘straightforward’ is one of the few words that clearly does not apply. Told in six sections from five different first-hand points of view, The Bone Clocks is split almost equally between events that occurred the reader’s past—relative to the publication date, that is—and in the future. So, like some of the author’s previous work (e.g., Cloud Atlas), this tale stitches together several connected stories in which a common set of characters frequently reappear. These sections are also written in a variety of genres, including two coming-of-age tales (one affecting, the other repellant), an account from a war correspondent, a self-aware satire of a misspent literary life, a prolonged fantasy sequence involving rival factions of quasi-immortal beings, and a dystopian view of society’s shared future.
It is to Mitchell’s great credit as a story-teller that this whole structure even comes close to making sense and hanging together as a cohesive whole. Indeed, while each of the six sections can almost be read as a stand-alone treatment, they actually do move through time and place in a logically consistent manner. That said, though, not all of them work equally well. Although I tend not to read a lot of fantasy or science fiction, I actually liked the book’s fifth section—which is also by far the longest—regarding the climactic battle for “Atemporal” supremacy between the Horologists and the Anchorites in which Holly plays a pivotal role. On the other hand, the final section involving the author’s vision of how mankind’s mismanagement of the earth’s resources leads to its own demise came off as stilted and sermonizing. Still, while it ended on a decidedly lower note than the ones on which it started, I enjoyed this novel for its sheer inventiveness and the author’s ability to create a most compelling set of characters.
If you've read more than one David Mitchell novel, you probably know that Mitchell likes to tie his stories and novels together. I read an interview with him where he described all of his works coming together to create an über-novel. Some may find the concept a bit too heavy of a ploy, but I love it. It's fun to play the “who's who” game when reading Mitchell. Of all of Mitchell's novels, The Bone Clocks works the hardest to bring all these pieces together. I counted six characters from previous Mitchell novels who made direct appearances (in one form or another). Add to that another five who were mentioned, and other characters who are likely descendents of characters we've met before. (And I'm sure I missed some.) Perhaps it was a bit too much, but it was fun. (Were there any references to number9dream? It was the only novel I couldn't make a connection to.)
What makes The Bone Clocks different from Mitchell's previous novels is the amount of paranormal fantasy. Sure, it's there to some extent in all of Mitchell's work, but he definitely turns it up a couple notches here. I don't think I'm too far from reason when I say that it felt like a collaborative effort with Stephen King. And when the novel was hitting its climax in Part 5, it was straight up Ghostbusters 2—creepy Vigo portrait and all. The action was all over the place and I had trouble following everything that was going on. Personally, I thought this added tension was over the top; I'd have preferred the novel stick with the momentum it had established in the first four sections.
The first two-thirds of The Bone Clocks is great. It really hits its stride by the second story and really moves in the third and fourth. Even though everything that happens in those four stories adds up to the fifth, that fifth almost felt like a completely different novel. And then the sixth—well, it seemed more like an afterthought. I imagine Mitchell sitting back after completing the novel and realizing—with horror—that he didn't include a futuristic scene where our dependence on technology has become our demise (see also Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas, “The Siphoners”). “Wait, everyone, we need all the characters to come back for one final scene.” Sure, it brings together some of the unresolved issues, but it did so with such an inorganic feel. I think this novel would've been better served with a different finale and saving this one for a short story down the line.
I don't know what else to say about this one—perhaps I've already said too much. I know there's been tremendous hype surrounding this one, but I'd personally put it in the bottom half of Mitchell's bibliography. That being said, it's good, even great at times. But with all the connections and callbacks to previous works, I think it's better to make your way through those first, if you haven't already.
No surprise, therefore, that this made the Booker Long List, but the readability of the book, and its refusal to be too serious probably explains why it does not come with the warning of having been awarded an actual Booker Prize. This book is somewhere between "books that everyone loves" and "books that are meant to make their readers look clever".
Characteristically this book is broken up into sections, and again the author shows his expertise in writing narrative with different voices by narrating this book from five different viewpoints. there are six sections but the first and last section are both narrated by Holly Sykes, albeit a much older Holly at the end of the book. This narrative trick is similar to that in Cloud Atlas, and like in Cloud Atlas, all the stories are linked together - in this case around the central character of Holly, although she recedes to a background character in at least one story.
Although this style of writing is now the author's stock in trade, my favourite books by him are in fact the ones where he did not do this. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Black Swan Green both avoided this structure. Then again the author has one more praise for Cloud Atlas and Number9Dream than for those books, so perhaps I am in a minority on that, and in any case who can blame him for doing what he does well once again in this book. The book has a slightly broken sense of a sequence of short stories, but that is no doubt intended, as is all the ways the story interlinks.
That linkage is not just for the other stories in this book, either. I noticed many familiar names from other works coming up again and again in this book. Hugo Lamb is mentioned in Black Swan Green, Dr Marinus and Penhaligan from Thousand Autumns, D'Arnoq from Cloud Atlas, and several other names seemed very familiar too. And then there is Crispin Hershey, who is identified as the writer of the Voorman Problem which he "barely remembers" except for "Making Belgium disappear", which is one of the best parts of Number9Dream (a novel I liked less for being too fawning of Murukami).
All in all, this novel seems to thread together every work by this author to date into one over-arching half realist and half fantasy work that remarkably is not naff for all that! That is partly down to the author's skill and perhaps through some self deprecating work in the story of Crispin Hershey, where there are plenty of funny little ironic remarks that poke fun at this book itself.
Oh and whilst we are talking about Hershey - that character bears some remarkable similarities to Martin Amis - some of the allusions being none to subtle. Martin Amis at times but then ultimately does he represent David Mitchell when his publisher asks him, aghast: "are you writing a fantasy novel"?
The Crispin Hershey section was, I think, the funniest part of the whole book. The section after it requites some concentration as many mysteries are resolved, and the final one makes a nice little epilogue that works in much the same way that the finale of Cloud Atlas works. It is a little poignant, but finishes the story nicely.
This is a long book, and the first section, for me at least, was almost a turn off. It was only the promise that this author could do more than write about teenage angst that kept me going. Once past that though it was a very good read, and thoroughly recommended. However if you have read nothing else by David Mitchell, you will get more from this book if you don't start with this one!
As he did in Cloud Atlas, Mitchell includes a plot-line set in the literary industry, and involving animus between an author and a critic. A quote from the critic's panning of the book Echo Must Die was surely one of the more backhandedly reflexive pieces of text I've read recently: "One: Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliche that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: The fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book's State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look. Three: What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer writing a writer-character?" (294) While I don't think that any of those three criticisms would be accurate for The Bone Clocks, they were almost certainly Mitchell's three chief worries about the possible weaknesses of this long book. In fact, the prose is very accessible, and the different characters' voices are distinct and engaging. The "fantasy sub-plot" is more of a "super-plot," and seems to have a constructive relationship to the contemporary issues raised by the mundane events of the novel. And the Crispin Hershey writer-character allows for a level of intertextual creativity that I suspect I have only begun to appreciate, since I haven't yet read most of Mitchell's work. In fact, at least three of the narrating characters are writers, by the time the whole picture is put together.
The book has three of its six sections set in the future of its composition, one of them now largely in our past. "Crispin Hershey's Lonely Planet" begins in 2015, in a book published in 2014, and continues through 2020. "An Horologist's Labyrinth" is the longest section, supplying the climax of the super-plot, and taking place in 2025, and the denouement "Sheep's Head" is set in 2043. I found these projected settings fairly credible, if not optimistic. Well, the last of them actually bummed me out more than a little, but I don't regret reading it, and I won't condemn the "State of the World pretensions" that inform it.
LibraryThing includes The Bone Clocks as the second of three novels in a series called "Horologists." Wikipedia, however, points out the continuities of character and setting to five other books by Mitchell, so that it sits in a larger web of connected texts, accounting for the majority of the author's published books. I'm sure I'll read more of these.
This book is comprised of 6 sections, each set in a different time period. The first section introduces us to Holly Sykes. She’s the common thread that pulls each of the other POVs/sections together and she is a very strong, well developed character with a personality and story that I found to be captivating. To be honest, this first section just sucked me without mercy. The second and third sections, while I was sorry to not have Holly the primary character, quickly pulled me in as well. Each of these three sections I cared about the characters, I wanted to know more, and I had a hard time putting the book aside.
Now, I debated about how to handle this review. One of the things I really enjoyed was having no idea where it was going. Each section wondering who I would read about next. For that reason, I am opting out of talking in any detail about characters other than Holly. I’m not even going to mention names, even though I realize they are likely detailed in any number of reviews. I enjoyed going in blind, and I am going to try to leave you with as much of that experience as possible, and still give you some idea about my reaction to the book.
Halfway through, I was convinced I was going to give this one a full five star rating. Then I got to section 4. At this point, I felt like this book stumbled a bit for me. Looking back, I feel like the book fell into two parts. The first part, the first 3 sections of the book, were extremely hard to put down and while the plot was interesting, it was the characters that I was really attached to. The next couple of sections, that was not the case. I felt like at that point, the story became more plot driven, the bigger picture was coming more into play and the characters in sections 4 and 5 just weren’t as captivating. Since I had been reading for the characters until this point, it was a bit of a transition for me. Don’t get me wrong, they were not bad. I just felt like it lost momentum. It took me until almost the end of the fourth section to really care about that character at all. But he grew on me. Eventually. The good news, is the end made up for any loss in momentum. Big time.
There is magic/super natural occurrences in this, but it’s not what made the book what it is. They were interesting and definitely added a bit of mystery to what was going on. They also allowed many of the themes in the book to be emphasized. Themes? Why, yes. This is a book that leaves you thinking about relationships, everyday life, global policies, social inadequacies, the complete lottery of privilege, disparity in quality of life, sustainability and environmental impact of our ‘necessities’. So much to think about. But these themes are not beat over your head, they are very well done. If your the type of reader that does not care for this, don’t worry. It’s far from a preachy book and I think you could just read the story at face value and still enjoy it. But hopefully you’ll explore a bit deeper.
There's a bit of the Martin Amis trick here of putting the author and the book you are holding *into* the book you are holding, kinda through a glass darkly.
Except the author here is more Martin Amis than Mitchell.
At first this all seemed overly contrived and the Amisian interlude really seemed arbitrary, especially since the author in his own book trick was never very clever or useful really. Except maybe to give the impression of cleverness to the overly susceptible.
Now it makes better sense as a way for the author to deal with anticipated criticisms of his work. . . . Woods, you see, admires Amis. And Mitchell, it seems, does not, and much of their disagreement is down to the status of the author's creation. For Woods and Amis, the novel is really nothing but an epiphenomenon of the author's interaction with the world around him. A vehicle for his expression and observation.
For Mitchell, the work--the scenarios, the characters, the movement of the narrative--has to some extent worth considering, a life of its own. The failure to see that is a failure of empathy. And empathy, not observation, is the true core to the writer's art.
Review: It's probably unavoidable due to the way that this book was structured, but I'm going to start out by comparing it to Cloud Atlas. I read Cloud Atlas almost a decade ago, just when I'd barely started reviewing, but I really liked it, and thought it's loosely interconnected stories moving forward (and then backwards) through time was just so cool and innovative. The Bone Clocks is similar in a lot of ways to Cloud Atlas, but it's a lot less loose - all of the stories tie in much more directly to Holly and the path her life has taken. And in some ways that helped the story - gave it more of a coherent narrative thread - but in other ways it really, really didn't.
Namely, the first section, where we're still meeting Holly and getting our footing, is very good. Mitchell writes extremely well-fleshed out characters and believable dialogue and vivid scenery, and then he throws in a bunch of really weird bizarre supernatural stuff happening, capped off with a hell of a twist. So by that point I was dying to find out what happened... and then that part of the story just stopped. We leave Holly behind, pick up with Hugo Lamb, with no indication that we're going to hear from Holly again OR find out what's happening with the supernatural stuff. And while Holly reappears relatively quickly, the explanation of what's happening behind the scenes is teased out in the tiniest dribs and drabs for most of the book, until there's a giant infodump of explanation in the fifth section. And by that point, my initial intrigue that had been generated by the compelling hook of the first part had worn thin over the course of the three intervening stories. It didn't help that I found the narrators of two of these sections (Hugo Lamb and Crispin Hershey, the Cambridge student and the author, respectively) pretty unlikable; both of them are exactly the sort of arrogant, self-absorbed guys who think way more highly of themselves than they actually merit, and wear on my patience remarkably quickly, let alone over the course of a novella in which they (of course) think they are the hard-done-by protagonist.
So I felt like the pacing was off in the first 2/3s of the book: good hook, but then too slow for too long with too many unrelated diversions. Then came the fifth section, which was exposition and big climactic battle all in one. I don't want to spoil it too much, but I came away almost but not quite convinced by the veracity of the supernatural world that Mitchell had created - I could suspend disbelief for a lot of it but it didn't quite hang together for me. But this section still had way more action than we'd seen since the beginning of the book, and the strange things from the first part finally had all paid off, so I was happy to go along with it. But then we get to the sixth section. And maybe (almost certainly) this has to do with the fact that realistically-built post-energy-crisis near-future sci-fi makes me antsy, particularly when it's plausible (see also: The Wind-Up Girl), but I would have been just fine if Mitchell had ended the book at the end of the fifth section. The last section, while it did introduce some sympathetic new characters, and did tie up some loose ends, just didn't really feel necessary, and wasn't as much fun to listen to, even apart from the uncomfortable-making setting.
As was the case for Cloud Atlas, each section of the audiobook was read by a different narrator, which really did help give each of the novellas a distinct feel. However, it did mean that I couldn't skim through some of the slower and more tangential parts, which, despite the excellent writing and well-built characters, ultimately made this book feel at least 20-30% longer than it really needed to be. 3 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: I suspect people's reaction to this book is going to depend on how much patience they have to follow Mitchell as he goes off on narrative excursions. It worked for me in Cloud Atlas, which was basically entirely made up of narrative excursions, but in this case, I just wanted him to hurry up and explain what was going on with Holly. Worth trying if you like Mitchell's other work, or like contemporary fiction with a touch or three of dark fantasy stirred into the mix.
The book was really good but imperfect. I was left with the feeling that Mitchell was after-the-fact pasting together separately-conceived set pieces. Two such examples:
1) Ed Brubeck’s accounts from post-Saddam Iraq seemed slow and prosaic. This section was a mash-up that didn’t propel the story forward and distracted from an otherwise-exciting main storyline.
2) Soleil Moore’s murder of Crispin Hershey on the heels of his weirdly indecisive confrontation with newly-freed Richard Cheeseman was strange and unexplained. Why didn’t Cheeseman kill Hershey? He had every reason to do so. And why did Moore regard her “Plan B” murder of Crispin as a gigantic wake-up call? What was the substance and significance of Hershey’s piece The Voorman Problem?
All that said, and in spite of any such real or perceived flaws with TBC, this 600+ page book excited and motivated me to come home from work and make time to read it in a way that few others have done in several years.
The quick synopsis of this book suggests a story of a teenage girl who has a fight with her family, runs away and inadvertently stumbles into an epic battle between good and evil. The synopsis also suggests that the story unfolds over many decades and involves a number of other characters such as a Cambridge scholar and a bestselling author. What the synopsis doesn’t explain is that the structure of the book is atypical and will leave the average reader feeling a bit lost at sea without a compass or maybe even without a boat.
The book is split into 6 main parts, each of which could have been an individual novella. We begin in the first section focused on a teenage girl named Holly Sykes. I really enjoyed Mitchell’s use of language and the vivacity of the scenes. I didn’t grow up in 1980s Britain but I really felt like the scenes were true to the situations. The narrative style is angsty and full of teenage passion and emotion. We learn a lot about Holly, her family, her situation as well as a little about her past through flashbacks about crazy things that happen. The back of the book synopsis gave some hint that these flashbacks about “The Radio People” were important but otherwise they would have just been interesting anecdotes revealing some strange pieces of Holly’s life. Not until a few hundred pages later do we realize just how important these flashbacks truly are.
Once Holly decides to run away from home the novel gives a few glimpses into the ambitious and bizarre territory the plot will eventually try to land. Along the road, Holly is thirsty and meets a strange old woman willing to share some tea with Holly in exchange for asylum someday if she should happen to require it. This innocuous request seems harmless and perhaps a little senile but is another moment that has immense importance later. A little farther down the road Holly has a terrible encounter that can only be explained as supernatural or paranormal. She manages to walk away safely with her memory of the incident erased and not mentioned again for hundreds of pages. Holly’s section ends with a huge revelation that seems to have little or no importance on the story but once again we’ll realize later that’s not the case.
The next section takes place a decade or so later and focuses on the student at Cambridge. We quickly learn about his ambitions and some of his quirks which are borderline (or definitely) illegal. His part in the story seems completely unrelated to Holly’s unless the reader was paying extreme attention during Holly’s story. The clues that Mitchell drops are so quick and subtle that it’s very easy to gloss over them. Finally when it seems that this story is properly going to intersect with Holly’s it takes an entirely different direction.
Rather than go through each of the six sections let me just say that they are each very detailed and rather interesting but in terms of the overall plotline the threads are hidden and somewhat confusing. As a new reader unsure exactly what I should expect I found the writing very engaging and vivid but I was confused as to the overall storyline. I was unclear as to who exactly I needed to be paying attention to and why. I was enjoying the writing and the creation of characters and worlds for the art of it but I was confused as to the trajectory of the story
By this point I’m at around the halfway mark in the book. I had pieced together enough clues to have a general sense of the “good and evil” we were concerned with but I still wasn’t exactly sure how (or if) the pieces were going to fit together and provide a cohesive climax and conclusion.
Due to the amount of pages remaining, I debated putting the book down unfinished. But I’m generally a “completionist” and I did feel invested in the characters and the world and I had a real curiosity to know how/if Mitchell would draw all of the threads together.
The next few chapters continued introducing characters, themes and situations that grew more and more complex. Eventually we flashed back hundreds of years to get a back story of a particular set of characters and the centuries-long struggle between the good and evil forces in the book. As before, I found the writing very interesting and engaging. Each segment was stuffed full of interesting little details that added to the feeling of realism and veracity to the given character or situation.
At long last I arrived at a point where the main characters take a few chapters to sum up the overarching problem to a character that didn’t yet have the full picture. These chapters contain a lot of exposition that helps draw all of the individual threads together and make sense of the overarching plot. As I read through this I thumbed back to some earlier sections of the book and reread those with the new information in mind.
From there we rush to the climax and the final ultimate confrontation between the two main forces of the book. The battle is fought with paranormal means and yet still felt visceral and believable. As our characters try to survive and escape the aftermath, Mitchell once again pulls on information from earlier scenes in the book (this time I made the connection before he had to explain it). Interestingly, once the climax concluded I expected a quick dénouement with a group hug. After all, we’d just had a ton of exposition and a climax filled with ultimatums. How much more could happen? Apparently, a lot. Rather than just set us down nice and easy, Mitchell does additional world building and jumps us forward another many years before winding things down. While the main plotline of the novel is complete he lets us know that the world is still progressing and our characters are still facing struggles. We get numerous chapters about the hardships and struggles before we finally reach the end.
I find myself having a difficult time adequately discussing this book. There is just so much going on that it’s not easy to summarize or explain without delving into spoilers or turning into a rambling mess (which I may have done anyway). The writing truly is good and I definitely enjoy the art of the writing. The storytelling is hugely ambitious and will surely be a stumbling block for somebody looking for a quick good-versus-evil action story.
That’s not to say that the concepts are difficult. On the contrary, I felt like Mitchell did a great job with his world building in constructing ideas and situations that were easy to understand and believable in the context of the novel. Rather, I felt like it was his form and ambition that would cause readers to find the book a little obtuse. The scope and magnitude of what he’s trying to accomplish is exacerbated by the way he drip feeds clues and information slowly and subtly. I found this to be very intriguing but I do admit that I considered giving up at some points.
I read somewhere that Mitchell considers his novels to be “uber chapters” in a much larger literary work. I don’t know if he really said that or if it’s just a fan theory. Having not read his other books I don’t know how well they tie together but even within this single novel I can see that he does like to string together pieces to create a larger whole.
Personally I really enjoyed the base level character and world creation. I found his settings, situations, characters and language to be vivid and enjoyable. The distinct scenes were interesting and compelling even if I didn’t immediately see how they fit into the larger whole. Once the larger plot began to materialize I found the themes and ideas rather compelling and thought provoking. The strange mythology/science/religion that he presents is interesting and opens up some interesting ideas of our concepts of mortality and what we should do with the time we have here on Earth.
As a whole, I really did enjoy this book and it did give me a desire to seek out and read some of his other work. Anticipating the scope of his other work, I’m not sure when I’ll pick up another book by him but I’d gladly read another. As far as recommendations, I must give the parental warning that there is some adult language and themes as well as minimal violence…all in all a PG-13 rating (possibly pushed higher due to language though I can’t recall now how prevalent it was). The other stumbling block to recommendation would be the willingness and desire of a reader to diligently push through this large novel filled with dozens of interesting smaller vignettes that slowly build a larger mural of the full story. There are a few people I can definitely recommend this to and others who I know would lose interest or get frustrated too quickly. Personally I enjoyed it.
3.5 out of 5 stars
This is a hard book to describe, and at times, the threads of the story were almost too loosely woven to pull me forward. But in the end, I was amazed at Mitchell's skill in telling this story.
Like the marvellous Cloud Atlas, this book features several different narratives delivered in the first person by a selection of different characters. The first is recounted by Holly Sykes, who leaves her home in Gravesend in 1984, aged 15, following a cataclysmic argument with her mother. The succeeding chapters are related by different characters who encounter Holly over the course of the next fifty or so years.
Most of these succeeding chapters are good, and some are excellent. My favourite section of Cloud Atlas, which had an almost concentric chapter structure, was 'The Ghastly Ordeal Of Timothy Cavendish' which recounted the travails visited upon an opportunist but seldom successful publishers. I found that 'Crispin Hershey's Lonely Planet' formed a close counterpart to this in the new novel, and I especially enjoyed the literary poisoned darts that Hershey/Mitchell throw out at some readily identifiable literary sacred cows of the present day.
There was, however, a more troubling side to the book. Throughout the novel there are reference to a struggle between The Horology and The Anchorites, two warring bands of people with their own respective brands of superpowers. The members of the Horology move from one carrier body to another, repeatedly inhabiting new forms and extending their lives over centuries or even, in the case of Esther Little, over millennia. The Anchorites also have paranormal abilities but their particular twist is to aspire towards eternal youth. These two groups are in perpetual combat, and episodes of their combat intrude into the otherwise 'normal' activities captured in the novel.
I am willing to accept the charge of being a hidebound traditionalist but I found this exceptionally annoying, and it detracted significantly from my enjoyment of the book. If I had wanted to read a science fiction story of that type I would have bought an Iain M Banks book and struggled to suspend my disbelief sufficiently. I would, however, at least have had some idea of what I was letting myself in for. I expected rather better of David Mitchell. To be fair, the good bits were exceptionally good, but the overall work just could have been much better.
Structurally the book is split into 6 roughly 100-page sections, each section jumping forward a decade or so in time and focusing on a handful of different characters whose lives sometimes intersect. The first 300 pages were sometimes challenging as a result, as they were basically the intro chunks to what felt like 3 different novels, all stacked together - so just as I would get to the point where I was getting my bearings and settling in comfortably, the section would end and a new one would begin (similarly to the other Mitchell novel I've read and loved, Cloud Atlas). Sections 4 and 5 are much more connected and this was where I really started to enjoy the book, and frequently caught myself making comments like "I can't wait for you to read this, I really like it!" to my roommate.
Section 6, though, is more of an extended "and then there were children and old age" epilogue than anything, as all of the interesting, plotty action of the story has already taken place and all of the characters that have already been introduced have basically been wrapped up. I wound up almost skimming through the last 50 pages, waiting for anyone I cared about as a reader to come back, or for some element of the fantasy worldbuilding that hadn't yet been depicted to the author's satisfaction to reveal itself - nothing, really, and I'm left honestly puzzled by Mitchell's decision to include the 6th section in the novel at all.
It's easy to compare The Bone Clocks to [Cloud Atlas] - both are split into sections that deal with different point-of-view characters, and both involve a lot of partially-told stories abruptly dropped or picked up in the middle. Obviously it's subjective, but to me the experimental structure of Cloud Atlas didn't feel gratuitous; The Bone Clocks does - or worse, it feels like a handwavey avoidance of certain writerly plot development work at best, an excuse to take tangents into issue novel territory at worst: Here Is An Infodump Of David Mitchell's Thoughts About Iraq. Here Are Some Of David Mitchell's Thoughts About Oil And Climate Change. (which would be fine, if these sections had more than the barest, most tangential connection to the main "plot" of the novel.)
I'm giving this novel 3.5 stars (4 on Goodreads) for sections 1, 2, 4, and 5 (and partial credit for 3, though it's the most wandering and ultimately not-super-relevant of the early chapters, and oddly placed as the novel's midsection, when you'd most expect things to really begin coming together). It's unfortunate when a challenging, engaging novel runs out of steam at the end - I'm trying not to let it sour my enjoyment of the earlier 550-odd pages!
It's definitely not fantasy in the "formal system of magic; oh and dragons" sense, but fantastic in the sense of "odd things happen".
Mitchell has so many gifts as a writer. Like Dickens, he can create, seemingly at will, a slew of memorable characters who burst to life on the page whether given a few paragraphs or much longer to develop. His narrative skills rival those of the most popular writer of thrillers: he carries you along, or makes you stop and ponder, at will. He rarely seems to phone it in: in fact you can almost see him working hard to produce an excellent product. He's just a really good writer, and though he makes it look easy, there's no way it is.
I do think in this book he struggles a bit with what he has written before, and with finding a larger message, and perhaps he doesn't slay those particular dragons. I actually liked the fantasy sections just fine, but I thought some of the contemporary chapters weren't up to snuff. Particularly unhappy, to me, was the (very long) chapter criticizing the contemporary literary scene, which was more waspish than perhaps intended.
As a whole, it's probably better than 99 percent of what's out there, though I don't think it matches Mitchell's best works. Still worth picking up.
Right this moment I feel like voting for the former, to an extent. I tend to split hairs over genre-benders, feeling that, more often than not, they're the result of multiple books mashed together into a hodgepodge of inconsistent character development, rushed plot lines, and leaping g-a-p-s of back info or an overabundance of same. The hairs being splitted, I'd say there was a bit of fantasy-smashing into this book as well. However, I'd also say it worked to an extent that it might not have if this was developed into a series or a pair of novellas. The novel encompasses the very act of fantasy-meets-life along the course of a set number of years. What better way to demonstrate the crashing set of facts thrust upon Holly (and others) than to let them crash into the story itself?
All in all, a satisfying read that was written with a good amount of wit, sarcasm, and interest. I'd definitely suggest it.
Author - David Mitchell
Fifteen year old Holly Sykes is in a spot. She leaves her home after a horrible fight with her mother and finds out her boyfriend (the one she got in a fight over with her mom and ran out to move in with) is cheating on her with her best friend. Well she cant go back home so she just keeps going. Holly is different than most young girls though, she once could hear voices in her head, visions that melt into the reality of her mind. She has learned to hide them but they are always just there, on the edges of her world.
But the young runaway finds out the world is a lot darker than she imagined. Soon after she leaves her young brother Jacko goes missing and the police, assuming he is with Holly won't even start searching. Holly rushes back home but Jacko is never found.
Holly's life is about to change considerably. She has come to the attention of a society of eternal beings and her lost weekend is just the beginning. Holly is caught up in a War between two powerful factions. The Anchorites and the Horology. They are always there, on the periphery of existence. The Anchorites feed on children to maintain their mortality. But only gifted children with psychic abilities, like Holly and her brother Jacko. The Horologists try to protect the children but their numbers are few and the Anchorites grow.
This war rages on and throughout her life Holly is kept hidden from it. But it is always there, effecting all around her, until she can no longer remain hidden and must join in the battle.
The Bone Clocks builds its tale through characters and sub plots until it is joined together in the end in a final battle to save mankind from becoming a feeding ground for the soul eating Anchorites. Mitchell does a wonderful job of creating small stories within the novel that lead into the true plot.
Holly Sykes is a powerful and flawed woman who you will follow throughout her life as others weave in and out of her world. The narration is often in the voice of others and Holly and the eternal battle for the souls of mankind are just a shade in what is happening in these lives. Until, for better or worse, the eternal battle slams into these characters. But Holly herself is a very well developed character and her pain and suffering are as much a part of her as her love and triumphs.
This is fantasy fiction on a grand scale. What the Bone Clocks does so well is that it relies little on the fantasy part of its story but more on the human interaction and drama. When the fantasy does come into play it is always an intrusion. An accident in the story, a sideswipe or head on collision that will change the lives of the characters completely.
Mitchell builds the plot slowly. Depending on his skill and prose as a storyteller to hold you as the grander vision of the Bone Clocks opens up. This might be a gamble for some writers but for Mitchell, it is done with ease and flair. There is never a moment of desperation in the novel that it might lose you. Its sheer confidence in it story keeps you involved and wanting to know more. But Mitchell peels it back slowly until the final chapters where he reveals the true nature of the Bone Clocks.
His timing is impeccable.
Easily, one of the best novels of the year!