‘If David Mitchell isn’t the most talented novelist of his generation, is there any doubt that he is the most multi-talented?’ This is one critic’s assessment, and I can only agree with it. David Mitchell is one of the best prose writers I have ever read. He’s pitch perfect whatever voice he is using. I wondered in my earlier review of his Cloud Atlas (2004) whether he was anything more than a very clever mimic. But reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) – reviewed here – convinced me that he actually has that rare ability to make all the voices the novelist uses sound utterly authentic. This capacity is again on show in The Bone Clocks (2014). And while I thought the convoluted structure of Cloud Atlas might be a bit over-clever, I accept that the episodic structure of Bone Clocks works perfectly. I really am a convert!
But aside from how he writes, I still have some hesitation about some of what he writes about. The book consists of six sections – almost short stories – set over a period beginning in 1984 and ending in 2043. The first and the last concern Holly Sykes; the other four have different narrators, though Holly is in all of them, and several other characters recur. And although each is completely different in time, tone and content, there is another aspect linking them all which I’ll come to in a moment; it is this aspect I’m not entirely comfortable with.
In 1984, Holly is a teenager completely smitten with slightly older man. She fights with her mother over it and runs away to live with him, only to find his declarations of love are false; she keeps on running – or rather walking. Over the next couple of days she has some strange experiences but returns home after hearing that her younger brother is missing. In 1991, Hugo Lamb, a postgraduate student at Oxford, is clever and charming. But it soon becomes clear that he is an also accomplished con man. On a visit to Switzerland for the skiing he meets Holly Sykes. Can she redeem him? In 2004, Ed Brubeck is a foreign correspondent just back from Iraq to attend the wedding of Holly’s sister; he is Holly’s partner and they have a daughter, Aoife. He denies being a war junkie, but he can’t get what he’s seen in Iraq out of his head. The next section covers the years 2015-19 in the life of an aging novelist named Crispin Hershey. He at first despises Holly, who has written an unusual and popular book, but comes to love her. In 2025 Iris Fenby is a psychiatrist, but I can’t summarise this section without giving away much else in the book. And then in 2043, Holly is an old woman living in the west of Ireland with her granddaughter and a Moroccan refugee she has adopted. It is the time of the Endarkenment. The economy, electronic communications and transport are breaking down. Her small community is threatened by the meltdown of a nuclear power plant, and civil order is collapsing. She and the children live precariously on what she can grow or barter. This is the section of the book that stays most in my mind, though it could be seen as a coda to the action. Its power derives from the sense that this is what the future will be if we continue to destroy the environment and fail to take steps to curb the growing inequality of wealth across the world. But there is fine writing in all of the sections, mixing grim reality with psychological insight and even a bit of humour.
But there is something else altogether going on in this book. In each section, but particularly in the fifth one, there is a perpetual war being waged between tiny groups of Atemporals, the Horologists, and Anchorites, the former being entities that can enter people’s minds, and who enjoy a form of immortality through transference to new bodies, the latter being humans that are able to defer death, though only through taking another human’s life. (I’ve oversimplified that a bit, but then these entities are oversimplified into good v evil.) In addition, a few people have the gift of precognition. Humans, being mortal, are ‘bone clocks.’
At times Mitchell appears to make fun of both himself and the idea of magic powers. Hugo Lamb for example says that ‘the paranormal is always, always a hoax.’ ‘The mind-walking theory’ is only plausible ‘if you live in a fantasy novel’ – which of course he does. A critic in the story says of Crispin Hershey’s novel that ‘the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s state of the wold pretentions, I cannot bear to look.’ And critics have said much the same about this book. But other less compromised characters defend the idea. Holly says ‘Beware of asking people to question what’s real and what isn’t. They may reach conclusions you didn’t see coming.’ And another character says that some magic is ‘normality you’re not yet used to’. So I guess Mitchell at least wants readers to take the paranormal elements of the book seriously. And this is a problem for me, not so much in accepting what I perceive as fantasy – there are many great fantasy stories, not least two of my all-time favourites Lord of the Rings and His Dark Materials – but because of the mixture of fantasy and reality. As one critic put it, ‘The fantastical elements can … appear overblown and absurd when placed against some of the beautifully realised human moments.’
There is a lot more complexity to this book than I have covered here, and I haven’t even begun to comment on the way that some characters, and major themes like the precariousness of civilisation, appear in most if not all of Mitchell’s books; all Mitchell’s novels form a unified, if extraordinarily complex, whole, an ‘uber novel’. You can read more assessments of his work, as well as the place of The Bone Clocks in it, in two great reviews, one from the Sydney Review of Books (from which the quote above comes), and one from the Atlantic Monthly, entitled ‘David Mitchell’s Almost-Perfect Masterpiece’. And this one, from which the quote which opens this post comes, even has a connection guide. And here’s another one, where Mitchell discussed The Bone Clocks.
Overall, despite any reservations, The Bone Clocks is a rewarding, challenging – if at times frustrating – and memorable novel. I highly recommend it.