Review: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

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Incredible

A globe-spanning, time-travelling, heart-wrenching epic with a strange dash of fantasy, set in an almost perfectly realised world. The Bone Clocks is a truly immersive reading experience.

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David Mitchell doesn’t write novels. By his own admission, David Mitchell struggles to write anything longer than a novella. He just doesn’t have the attention span. The trick he says, is to take a handful of shorter stories, weave them together with some recurring character or motif, and cunningly pass them off as a full-length book – like dwarfs in a trench coat standing on each other’s shoulders. It’s an M.O. that’s served him well in the past, and in The Bone Clocks he uses it to span several decades and a planet’s width as he flits from one narrator to the next in pursuit of protagonist Holly Sykes.

The format can be jarring, but captivates nonetheless. The second you begin to feel at home you find yourself suddenly whisked away to another decade and another corner of the earth and, once you’ve picked yourself up and dusted yourself off, forced to regain your bearings and start all over again – whether in Shanghai or Manhattan, the Swiss Alps or the Australian bush, 1980’s Kent or post-apocalyptic Ireland. This globetrotting, however disorientating it might be to begin with, contributes to a novel both vast in its scope and meticulous in its detail, and it is fascinating to see the playful and original ways in which Mitchell brings so many different threads together.

Meanwhile, only a tantalising glimpse is offered of the bigger picture: the grand psychic conspiracy taking place behind the scenes of comparatively mundane stories concerning teenage heartbreak and midlife crisis, love and war and skiing trips gone wrong – a conspiracy in which our young heroine finds herself unwittingly embroiled. The moment of revelation seems always a page-turn away, but so often comes just as the chapter draws to a convenient close. These cross-sectioned glances of a truth apparently too large to be viewed all at once, dropped like breadcrumbs throughout the book’s first two-thirds, only serve to sweeten the eventual unveiling of Mitchell’s master plan.

Not once is this novel permitted to stagnate, nor is its reader given time to grow complacent. There is that steady, expectant climb with which each story begins, followed by the exhilarating downhill rush to the end, over and again, forgoing altogether the plateau that would typically occupy a novel’s mid-section.

The environmental message of the later chapters is a little heavy-handed (to such an extent that, at times, one can’t help but be acutely aware that certain characters’ words are in fact those of a forty-something author crouched over a laptop somewhere in Ireland, bludgeoning his keyboard with righteous fury) and the terminology used by the atemporal psychosoterics in the climactic psychoduel between the Returners and Sojourners of Horology and the carnivorous soul-decanting Anchorites is, frankly, exhausting. Nevertheless, Mitchell succeeds in creating a mythos as unique as it is complex, and paints a troublingly believable picture of our species’ near future. His prose effervesces with an almost spoken-word quality – from the Estuary English of teenage Holly Sykes, to the erudite patter of frustrated author Crispin Hershey – and his knowledge of the worlds to which he introduces us is vivid and first-hand. Just as his band of immortal vigilantes the Horologists are reincarnated from host to host, so does Mitchell seem to wholly inhabit the lives and minds of his characters.

It was both awe-inspiring and strangely heartbreaking to read as, over the course of the novel’s six hundred pages, Holly Sykes grew from a girl into a mother into a frail old woman, and the ubiquitous undercurrent of sinister fantasy transports her story to previously uncharted dimensions. David Mitchell, despite his short attention span, is a master novelist.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell was published in 2014. 

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