Review: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Wow. The toughest aspect of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge hosted by Cathy746books isn’t the reading, it’s the blogging. David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is mind-blowingly layered and fantastic. “Wow” pretty well covers my reaction, but I suspect you’d like more information…

Similar to Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks jumps around and contains six solid narratives told in first person by five narrators (one gets two sections). If you recall, my biggest complaint about Cloud Atlas was the way each story was cut in half just when it began to get interesting and not resumed until hundreds of pages later. In The Bone Clocks, each story is a complete arc. Though all arcs end as they become interesting, they end in less of a cold-shower way because they build on each other. Each answers questions from the previous sections, often in teasingly subtle ways. Many people compare The Bone Clocks‘ structure to Cloud Atlas which isn’t fair—The Bone Clocks is much better.

This is a tough one to summarize. The Bone Clocks begins with the story of 15-year-old Holly Sykes, who wants nothing more than to spend time with her much older boyfriend, Vinny. When her mother catches them together, Holly runs away to a fruit farm. When she learns that her younger brother, Jacko, has gone missing, the POV switches and time leaps forward. Each of the following sections is told from the perspective of someone close to Holly: a hook-up, an ex, an acquaintance, a horologist—together, they tell Holly’s story of overcoming her brother’s disappearance and sorting out the Radio People.

Once again, Mitchell stuns with a set of unique voices. Though the lives of the supporting cast overlap with Holly’s, she’s not always the focus of their narrative. Mitchell requires patience from his reader. He doesn’t mind setting up a character via a long detour from the central plot. Each time you feel a pinch of irritation that the narrative has shifted just when the latest voice has grown on you, keep with it. Mitchell pays off every digression and tangential detail. Even the moments that don’t directly underpin the plot form key motivations and impressions. Mitchell’s characters feel like real people and it’s possible for their trajectories to change on the basis of a single exchange.

What helped me keep patience was reading Slade House not very long ago. It shares a character and theme with The Bone Clocks. Because of this, I knew a little of what horologists are capable of and I knew how creepy all the psychic business would become. Speaking of the psychic stuff, I’m so impressed by how well the supernatural elements are handled. The psychic battles come through as rugged and tangible with genuine physicality. They’re not at all cheesy. Reading Slade House first also boosts this—it taught me Mitchell doesn’t mind bumping off main characters. In his world, no one is safe.

About all those spectacularly unique voices… Here a sampling:

The Teenager:

When Sharon’s left, Mom takes up the attack again: “All alone, were you, on your ‘walk’?”
Why this nasty feeling she’s setting me up? “Yeah.”
“How far d’you get on your ‘walk’ then, all alone?”
“What—you want miles or kilometers?”
“Well perhaps your little walk took you up Peacock Street, to a certain someone called Vincent Costello?” The kitchen sort of swirls, and through the window, on the Essex shore of the river, a tiny stick-man’s lifting his bike off the ferry. “Lost for words all of a sudden? Let me jog your memory: ten o’clock last night, closing the blinds, front window, wearing a T-shirt and not a lot else.”
Yes, I did go downstairs to get Vinny a lager. Yes, I did lower the blind in the front room. Yes, someone did walk by. Relax, I’d told myself. What’s the chances of one stranger recognizing me? Mam’s expecting me to crumble, but I don’t. (5)

Holly is 15 and Vinny is 24. Guess how excited he is when she shows up and asks to live with him after running away. Even though his reaction is predictable to the reader, Holly can’t see it coming. Mitchell wiggles into her head and voice so tightly that I felt 15 again just reading her words. Oh, the vicarious embarrassment!

The Posh Student:

She says, “Cambridge has met your expectations?”
“If you don’t use Cambridge well, you don’t deserve to be here. Erasmus, Peter the Great, and Lord Byron all lodged in my rooms. It’s a fact.” Bullshit, but I love to act. “I think of them, lying on my bed, staring up at the very same ceiling, in our respective centuries. That, for me, is Cambridge.” And that’s one tried-and-tested pick up line. “My name’s Hugo, by the way. Hugo Lamb.”
Instinct warns me off attempting a handshake.
Her lips say, “Immaculeé Constantin.”
My, oh, my. A seven-syllable hand grenade. “French?” (99)

Yes, that Hugo Lamb from Black Swan Green. Hugo meets Holly in Switzerland. So much has changed that the reader no longer feels privy to her inner life, despite having just been there. Exchanges between her and Hugo are layered with meaning as the reader teases out answers to questions from the opening: What happened to Jacko? What was all that psychic business? Who is Constantin?

The Reporter/Father:

Aoife turns, tugs the balloon string off and threatens to let it go.
“Go ahead.” I know how to handle Aoife. “But be warned, if you let go, I’ll never buy you a balloon again.”
Aoife twists her face up into a goblin’s and—to my surprise, and hurt—lets the balloon go. Off it flies, silver against blue, while Aoife dissolves into cascading sobs.  “I hate you—I hate Dora the Explorer—I wish you were back—back in Bad Dad—forever and ever! I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate your guts!
Then Aoife’s eyes shut tight and her six-year-old lungs fill up.
Half of Sussex hears her shaken, sobbing scream.
Get me out of here. Anywhere.
Anywhere’s fine.

In the third section, Holly’s ex is freshly returned from Baghdad (which their daughter pronounces ‘Bad Dad’) and struggling to participate in ordinary life.

The Has-Been:

Truly, Dear Reader, I could weep. Kingsley Amis boasted how a bad review might spoil his breakfast, but it bloody wasn’t going to spoil his lunch. Kingsley Amis lived in the pre-Twitter age, when reviewers actually read proofs and thought independently. Nowadays they just Google for a preexisting opinion and, thanks to Richard Cheeseman’s chainsaw massacre, what they’ll read about my comeback novel is: “So why is Echo Must Die such a decomposing hog? One: Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliché that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: The fantasy subplot 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 creating a writer-character?” Richard Cheeseman has hung a KICK ME sign around Echo Must Die‘s neck, at the very time I need a commercial renaissance. (293-4)

Crispin Hershey is trying to revive his flagging literary reputation and runs into Holly on a book tour of her own.

The Horologist:

The passenger-side window exploded into a thousand tiny hailstones, and the mirror above my head was a brittle supernova of plastic and glass. One shard of plastic shrapnel, the size and shape of a fingernail clipping, lodged itself in my cheek.
I crouched, afraid. A logical portion of my mind was arguing that if the marksman had intended to kill me I would now be staring across the Dusk. But I stayed down for several minutes longer. Atemporality neutralizes death’s poison, but it doesn’t defang death, and old habits of survival linger on, even in us. (445)

The best section, a.k.a. when all the crazy questions get answered.

The Epilogue:

It’s grief for the regions we deadlanded, the ice caps we melted; the Gulf Stream we redirected, the rivers we drained, the coasts we flooded, the lakes we choked with crap, the seas we killed, the species we drove to extinction, the pollinators we wiped out, the oil we squandered, the drugs we rendered impotent, the comforting liars we voted into office—all so we didn’t have to change our cozy lifestyles. People talk about the Endarkenment like our ancestors talked about the Black Death, as if it’s an act of God. But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burned our way through. My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of Earth’s Riches knowing—while denying—that we’d be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid. (560-1)

From this point on, I skimmed to learn whether certain characters made it or not. This scenario (being old/vulnerable, living in a backward, unsafe world with wars and scuffles over the few remaining resources) really freaks me out. Even if it didn’t, all my questions were answered in the previous section. Though this section isn’t technically an epilogue or labeled as such, it still feels like one. I don’t mean that in a good way.

Overall: 4.7

Translation: Read it.


Previously On:

My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

3 thoughts on “Review: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell”

  1. You remind me how complex and how great this book was. I read it the other way round to you so Slade House came afterwards for me and I got the connection in reverse so to speak. I thought this was better than Cloud Atlas though not as good as Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet that I absolutely adored!

    1. I have Thousand Autumns on my bookshelf and /almost/ added it to my summer 20, but I was already reading one by Mitchell and several longer books.

      Does it have several voices too, or is it more traditional? I’ve read the first chapter several times but that’s it. Now that I know what to expect from Mitchell, I think I’ll enjoy it more. 🙂

      1. It’s more traditional – at least in the voices sense. I loved it – brilliantly written and Jacob de Zoet is a fabulous character. Hope you enjoy it when it gets off that shelf!

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