‘The Bone Clocks’ by David Mitchell (Review)

When I saw online a couple of weeks back that David Mitchell’s new novel Utopia Street was about to come out, it reminded me that there was a rather chunky skeleton lurking at the back of my bookish equivalent of a closet.  I loved Mitchell’s early work, so when I heard that he had another book out, back in 2014, I entered a Twitter competition and was fortunate enough to win a copy of the novel in question, namely The Bone Clocks.  Alas, this was around the time that my reading diet was taking a decided turn towards fiction in translation, so when the book landed on my doorstep, it was put to one side, with a promise that I’d get to it at some point.

It’s 2020, the world’s in turmoil, and I’m not getting many review copies – that point is now 😉

*****
The first part of The Bone Clocks is told by Holly Sykes, a teenager running away from home after an argument with her mum about an older boyfriend.  When she decides to ask him to let her stay for a while, she finds out that, as always, mum knows best, but too ashamed to skulk back home, she decides to head off on a lengthy walk, hoping to find somewhere to stay, for a few days at least.  Over the course of this journey, she bumps into a boy from her school and an old woman who asks her for an unusual favour, just the start of an action-packed weekend.

Of course, with this being a Mitchell book, there’s far more to these seemingly random events than initially meets the eye.  The following five sections propel us forward in time, and as we speed through the decades, meeting a host of characters in locations all over the world, something in the background becomes ever clearer, something darker and more disturbing.  As it turns out, there’s no such thing as coincidence, and Holly is fated to run into many of these people repeatedly, including some rather familiar faces…

From the start, anyone familiar with Mitchell’s work will feel right at home.  The Bone Clocks is another of his novels in parts, à la Ghostwritten or Cloud Atlas, consisting of six novella-length first-person accounts, each taking the story forward ten years or so.  While each new story feels a little like starting a whole new book, connections soon appear, and Holly always crops up eventually.  We see her growing up, and growing older, getting married and having kids, but we also see the world changing around her.  The first few sections are set in the past and describe events we’re all familiar with; the second half of the novel then takes us into the future, hinting at the disasters that are yet to come.

What distinguishes The Bone Clocks from some of Mitchell’s earlier works, though, is the story going on in the background.  During her childhood, Holly’s discovers that she has mysterious powers and occasionally receives visits from a woman nobody else sees.  Then there’s her younger brother, Jacko, who can only be described as a very unusual little boy:

“Take it,” he tells me.  “It’s diabolical.”
“It doesn’t look all that bad to me.”
” “Diabolical” means “satanic”, sis.”
“Why’s your maze so satanic, then?”
“The Dusk follows you as you go through it.  If it touches you, you cease to exist, so one wrong turn down a dead-end, that’s the end of you.  That’s why you have to learn the labyrinth by heart.”
pp.7/8 (Sceptre, 2014)

These early hints are setting us up for the introduction of the Horologists and the Anchorites, two small groups of virtual immortals, who get their long lives in very different ways.  Holly ignores her ‘talents’ for as long as possible, but she eventually gets caught up in a battle that can only end with one of the groups wiping the other out.

As always, Mitchell is taking the long view, and the timescale of the novel allows us to see life changing as we move along:

“Look at that!  Life’s more science-fictiony by the day.  It’s not just that you get old and your kids leave: it’s that the world zooms away and leaves you hankering for whatever decade you feel most comfy in.” (p.235)

There’s certainly a lot of progress shown, such as the shift from clunky landlines to futuristic devices.  However, as was the case in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, the cheery style of some of the sections belies a deep concern with the way humanity is heading.  With each new section, more cracks appear in the world, and the opulent lifestyle the characters enjoy masks the increasing problems the earth faces in terms of war and environmental pollution.  The atemporal beings who surround Holly have been around long enough to see how much the planet has changed – they may well still be around to see how it all ends.

Reading Mitchell’s work is always a pleasure, partly for the skill he has in creating various voices.  Each of his narrators here is distinct, from the teenaged Holly to the privileged (and evil) Cambridge student Hugo Lamb, from the perpetually grumpy writer Crispin Hershey (and the guilt eating him alive) to war correspondent Ed Brubeck, realising he’s become just another war junkie.  The six parts are all great stories in their own right, and if we feel disjointed when we start one, this is contrasted with a sense of sadness when we come to the end of the section.

Another notable feature of Mitchell’s work is the way he draws all this into his already existent universe.  There are minor mentions here for such characters as Luisa Rey and Timothy Cavendish from Cloud Atlas and Jason, the protagonist of Black Swan Green (a minor scene in that book even shows the seeds of Hugo Lamb’s malevolent nature), as well as another extended appearance for the Irish scientist Mo Muntervary, one of the voices of Ghostwritten.  Of course, Exhibit A for the prosecution is the return of a character from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, four hundred years after we last saw him.  It’s not strictly necessary to have read the earlier books and know these characters to appreciate The Bone Clocks, but it’s enjoyable for Mitchell fans to spot the interloper, and it does provide a little more depth to the story.

However, if I’m honest, I think this is a rare occasion of the parts being better than the whole book.  There’s nothing wrong with Mitchell’s fantasy story of good and evil atemporals battling for supremacy, but I never quite bought how this struggle connected with the rest of the novel.  There are many ways you can try to interpret this strand, such as seeing the struggle of the Horologists as that of altruistic folk trying to stop the rich and greedy from destroying us all, but in truth, it’s very much in the background for the first four parts, with the fifth part then finishing the whole affair off.  Yes, it’s interesting and thought-provoking, and Mitchell cleverly pieces the final battle together while linking back to the hints he dropped earlier in the book.  Yet once we move on to the final chapter, even though we know that someone is bound to have survived, this whole battle is pretty much forgotten, and we’re back to Holly and a world gone to pot.

There’s also a nagging sense that the novel could even be seen as a little derivative of his own work.  Where Cloud Atlas was an extension of Ghostwritten, pushing the style and themes of the earlier book to extremes, this one felt like a pale imitation in places.  For example, for anyone who has read Cloud Atlas, the ending to The Bone Clocks was fairly obvious, and a bit of an anti-climax.  It may have made for a nice way to round off the story, but when we’ve already been there before, it leaves a tinge of disappointment.

Still, even if The Bone Clocks doesn’t quite live up to Mitchell’s earlier books, it’s still an excellent novel, or rather, six intriguing stories, each well worth reading.  I read it over five days, but next time around, I’ll probably try to read one section a day as they are great individual stories.  That’s for another time, though, and now that I’ve finally got around to finishing this one, perhaps it’s time to take a look at his new books.  I’m busy at the moment, but let’s hope it doesn’t take six years for me to try another of Micthell’s works 😉

4 thoughts on “‘The Bone Clocks’ by David Mitchell (Review)

  1. It sounds fun but not essential. I think it was Ghostwritten I reviewed at mine years ago – as I recall I liked it but found it rather a shaggy dog tale. It does mystify me though that he’s not seen as an SF writer as he seems absolutely firmly within the genre to me.

    Not I suppose that genre boxes matter much. What matters is if you can write and he can do that. Still, this one possibly sounds a little too self-referential and maybe one for Mitchell completists.

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    1. Max – He’s certainly a spec-fic writer, but he does fly under that radar somewhat. I’d recommend ‘Cloud Atlas’ to anyone, but this is definitely not where you’d start with Mitchell’s work…

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