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. For Holly has caught the attention of a cabal of dangerous mystics -- and their enemies. But her lost weekend is merely the prelude to a shocking disappearance that leaves her family irrevocably scarred. This unsolved mystery will echo through every decade of Holly's life, affecting all the people Holly loves -- even the ones who are not yet born. A Cambridge scholarship boy grooming himself for wealth and influence, a conflicted father who feels alive only while reporting from occupied Iraq, a middle-aged writer mourning his exile from the bestseller list -- all have a part to play in this surreal, invisible war on the margins of our world. From the medieval Swiss Alps to the nineteenth-century Australian bush, from a hotel in Shanghai to a Manhattan townhouse in the near future, their stories come together in moments of everyday grace and extraordinary wonder.
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.
Some favorite quotes (not spoilers):
"I loved X like he was a part of me, and he loved me like a stick of gum. He'd spat me out when the flavor went, unwrapped another, and stuffed it in..." p. 16
"Being born is a hell of a lottery." p. 56
"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 longterm 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." p.100
Mitchell is best known as a master prose stylist known for his genre-bending writing. With The Bone Clocks, he doesn't pull off the literary triple axle so much as a gruelingly satisfying relay race, where several characters take over narration at junctures to carry the story forward. Cloud Atlas, which everyone seems to want to compare The Bone Clocks to, is much more acrobatic, bending not only in place and time but literary narrative styles, each chapter its own standalone novella. In contrast, The Bone Clocks feels more grounded, coherent, like a conventional book, even with its jagged mix of realism and fantasy. In many ways, The Bone Clocks felt like a more fluid, mature Cloud Atlas; just as Cloud Atlas was a more fluid and mature Ghostwritten. The say that ambitious writers write the same novel over and over again to improve it with each new book. Mitchell has done that and more with The Bone Clocks.
The Bone Clocks is similar to Cloud Atlas in its six-part structure that plays the scales from naive past to dark, uncertain future, but events are distilled within the lifetime of one character, Holly Sykes. Unlike Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks has a clear protagonist in Holly, though she isn't always our narrator. In the beginning of the book, we meet Holly as a hard-headed teenager living in Kent in Thatcher-era 1980s and by the end of the book, as a fiercely protective grandmother living in Ireland in an apocalyptic 2040s. During most of her life, though, we only get glimpses of her through the first-person eyes of other characters—four others in total. This may seem jarring but it actually works movingly because we discover and get to know Holly from all these different tangents, seeing and experiencing her life without being inside her head. This gives the storytelling a cinematic quality because you are watching Holly through her impact and influence on others. Distance and intimacy.
Expect a lot of globe-trotting. Across the span of 600-plus pages, Mitchell takes you to towns and cities like Gravesend, New York City, the Hudson Valley, Toronto, Vancouver, Shanghai, Cartagena, as well as grabs your hand and darts across Iceland, Switzerland, Russia, Australia, and Iraq. Along with a strong sense of place (Mitchell could be a travel writer, seriously), there is a strong sense of time as well. Past, present, and future are represented here both in the propulsive, forward-moving main narrative and in the memories and recollections of various characters.
And that's just the human world of temporality. Because, of course, Mitchell doesn't just create worlds, he creates a whole other universe in the creation of two groups of immortals or Atemporals: the Horologists and Anchorites. The Horologists are immortal by default. They live out their lives like mortals, die, and then return forty-nine days in a body whose soul has departed, usually a child, and usually a child with exceptional psychic sensitivities. The Anchorites, on the other hand, are immortal through a kind of soul-eating cannibalism that recalls the recent book Doctor Sleep by Stephen King and the horror-stylings of Clive Barker. These baddies hunt down these special children and "decant" their souls. Mortals are their quarry; good ole Horologists try to stop them. It is a very black-and-white, good-versus-evil kind of conflict, not very nuanced.
When we first get to know the surly teenaged Holly, a First Mission by the Horologists has failed tragically; they are scattered and broken. Later when we see middle-aged Holly, the Horologists try for a Second Mission that leads to a spectacular, climatic siege that made me think of Harry Potter fight scenes. This war plays out in the background, with occasional terrifying forays into reality in the early half of the book, though by the middle and latter half becomes thoroughly embroiled and entwined in our/Holly's world (and her head).
More than any idea that comes across in the book are the ideas of ties and kinship. Everything is connected ... is something that permeates all of Mitchell's books. His books may feel vast and humanity small in them but at the heart of his writing—and The Bone Clocks is no exception—people matter. What we experience and decide to do matters. We see this most earnestly in Cloud Atlas where acts of cruelty and kindness have consequences that ripple across time and space. Above the din of the action and plotting, The Bone Clocks is very much a book about action being set into motion by small acts, often unseen and unheard, or sometimes quickly "redacted" from conscious memory, as happens a lot in The Bone Clocks. This gives the book a kind of fairy-tale quality in a way. Consider the fateful early scene where Holly meets an old woman and makes her a promise in exchange for a drink of tea. Or, when a character in his love-smitten state, remarks: "Experimentally, silently, I mouth I love you ... No one hears, no one sees, but the tree falls in the forest just the same." If I explain more about this line it would be egregiously spoiling but know that this undeclared devotion will matter critically later. Then, toward the climax of the book, a labyrinth that we first heard about obliquely in the first few pages makes a big splash.
It all ties beautifully together.
The Bone Clocks treads this same thematic path of kinship both within the novel but also across all the previous books as well. What many fans will surely find thrilling is that Mitchell creates connections, linking to characters in his previous novels, most notably Black Swan Green, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Number9 Dream, and Cloud Atlas. There is an actual word for this, unsurprisingly: metalepsis, the "paradoxical transgression of the boundaries between narrative levels or logically distinct worlds." If anyone transgresses with panache, it's certainly Mitchell in The Bone Clocks. As we've seen before, he regularly imports and exports his own props and characters from earlier works, blurring the boundaries of each novel as a self-contained narrative. It is recurrence but not duplication, though, since Mitchell makes his references through ancestry, reincarnation, or a retelling of a character. By the end of The Bone Clocks, the fantasy action has shifted to a more speculative, dystopian bent. While we've moved on from the Atemporal war, Holly is faced with a much more real, tangible threat. It is a disturbing chapter to end with and yet there is a glimmer of hope, as an old friend of Holly makes an appearance to repay a kind act, just as Holly once did. Actions and reactions.
The writing itself is Michell-esque. Per usual, if you've read his other novels, Mitchell gives us observational vertigo that offers the smell of London streets, the heat of the Baghdad sun, or even the movements of shadow and light as precious, unforgettable fragments. You will be highlighting or underlining like crazy in The Bone Clocks.
There are a few snooty critics from The New Yorker and elsewhere who have blasted The Bone Clocks as a fantasy hack. My inner thug/ardent Mitchell groupie wants to treat those book reviewers to the same fate as Felix Finch in Cloud Atlas or Richard Cheeseman in The Bone Clocks, but the naysayers do have their points ("intricate replications ... but what do they amount to") and they at least acknowledge that Mitchell is a phenomenal storyteller and novelist. I just don't think they really get Mitchell. So yeah he's given us a literary book about an inter-dimensional war between incorporeal shape-shifters who can ingress and egress through our minds and fight each other with incantations fueled by psychovoltage. Um, who can do that? Who can get the hearts of both genre fans and literary fans a-beating?
My final grumble: The Bone Clocks should have made the Booker Prize shortlist.
(I'm a huge fan of Mitchell's work. If you are, too, and want a full bibliography, check out Everything You Could Possibly Want to Know About David Mitchell, which has interviews, reviews, essays, and a lot more.)
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.
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?’”
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 Bone Clocks begins and ends with Holly Sykes, whom we meet as a teenager running away from home after a fight with her mother. She intends to move in with the older boyfriend her mother disapproves of, but when that doesn't work out, she's determined not to return, although she does miss her little brother. Holly is perhaps the only truly "ordinary" character in this unusual book and it's her presence that anchors the happenings which follow, as people and event cycle around her. This is an impossible book to characterize, but I can say that it is a fantastic, thought-provoking experience that I'm still thinking about.
I stumbled upon the genius of David Mitchell when I purchased a first edition of Ghostwritten in 1999. I had found my Fun House! Mitchell quickly became my favorite living author. I have savored his every novel since. “The Bone Clocks” continues that admiration.
It hasn’t always been easy sharing this view over the years, especially with my most highbrow literary “friends”. Their comments can be neatly summed up by, “How could you?” I notice that some of those same experts appear to be out again.
Maybe those friends didn’t like Fun Houses when they were kids. They must not have been delighted in being frightened and surprised each time they turned a corner. They probably did not enjoy the variety of the experience, the audacity of it all. Was it the mirrors? The spirits? Maybe, they couldn’t wait to get out.
Thank you, David Mitchell, for the latest installment of your meta-novel. I tore it open as soon as it arrived (thank you, Random House and LibraryThing for the ARC) and I started devouring it immediately. I enjoyed every part (yes, every part). I found Holly simply stunning, Crispin spot-on, Hugo creepy, references to earlier works fun to catch. I got pulled into each story immediately and was only willing to let go because I knew that there was a new “room” around the corner. The settings were so intriguing, the language so precise. Was some of it over-the-top? Sure. Bring it on.
As always, I emerge from a Mitchell Fun House novel with a smile on my face and richer for the experience. And, the clock starts ticking in an impatient wait for the next installment.
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.
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".
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.