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The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

May 30, 2015


In 2007, Time magazine included David Mitchell on their list of Most Influential People in the World. Although this is only my second Mitchell novel (incl. Cloud Atlas), I regard him among the most talented living writers. He is a genre-jumping virtuoso, with an incredible ability to stitch together styles, time periods and settings with seeming ease. In Cloud Atlas, he architected a plot of six nested stories, each written in a different genre, of a different time period, a different world, linked by shared themes and symbolism. At their best, such acrobatics can be breathtaking. At worst, they can seem like indulgent showmanship. In The Bone Clocks, we get a little of both.

Loosely, The Bone Clocks is the story of Holly Sykes. Like in Cloud Atlas, Mitchell tells the story in six parts, ranging from 1984 to 2043. The first and last sections are told from the point of view of Holly. In the first section, she is a young runaway coming of age in northern England, out on her own with nothing but a brash attitude and spite for her cheating boyfriend. In the final section, Holly is a grandmother, living in a bleak future landscape in Sheep’s Head, Ireland. In between, we get Holly’s story from characters who come and go from her life: a cocky young man she meets in a ski village, a war photographer who knew Holly as a kid, and an infamously abrasive novelist.

Throughout the story, there are moments where the realism of these subplots is punctured by a parallel, supernatural world. At first, we only get glimpses—Holly hears voices. Holly can see the future. But as the story progresses, these punctures become more frequent and we get a clear indication that there is definitely something strange going on behind the scenes, and that this parallel story is the true central plot.

Ready? There are two battling groups of immortals. One is called the Horologists, the other Anchorites. They are like bands of good and evil superheroes, fighting for the fate of the world. Holly is central to this battle.

This comes in section five. What one thinks of The Bone Clocks might pivot entirely on what one thinks of the fifth section, where these battling factions come fully into the light, taking center stage with a kind of Harry Potter/His Dark Materials-esque plotline. I won’t try to explain. I honestly couldn’t. I think the best example, maybe the nadir of the writing in this section, is cited by James Woods in the New Yorker:

Seeing my dead body against the wall, the Anchorites reason that no psychosoteric can now attack them, and their red shield flickers out. They’ll pay for this mistake. Incorporeally, I pour psychovoltage into a neurobolas and kinetic it at our assailants. It smacks into Imhoff and Westhuizen, the Fifth and Seventh Anchorites, respectively, and down they go. Three against seven. I ingress into Arkady to help him repair the shield, which turns a stronger blue and pushes back the remaining Anchorites. . . . Go to Holly, suborders Arkady. I obey without even thinking to bid him goodbye, an omission I regret even as I transverse to Holly, ingress, evoke an Act of Total Suasion.

Come again?

Faithful to genre, Mitchell adopts not only a sci-fi/fantasy plot, but also the hackneyed style of the genre. I almost, almost gave up on this book, something I almost never do. Had I not previously read Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, I would have quit. It was only my faith in his skills that kept me going.

At one point, I developed a theory that the battles playing out between the Horologists and the Anchorites was a metaphor representing a biological or emotional battle happening inside of Holly. I was half hoping it would be revealed that the whole section was some kind of weird fever dream. But it’s not. It’s not metaphor and not a dream. There are literally people shooting beams of energy at each other inside some kind of mystical temple.

I can forgive the hokey mythology more quickly than I can the writing style. Mitchell has obviously chosen to be true to the genre, but I find the genre unreadable. And more frustrating is that the weird magical powers are all introduced as the characters use them. There’s no upfront introduction of the world or the rules by which the conflict is taking place. It’s explained as the action plays out in clunky exposition and forced dialogue, which makes it seem borderline meaningless.

Mitchell saves the novel with the last section, the most emotionally impactful chapter. Even with the loopty-loop of the Harry Potter sequence, in the end there are very resonant moments of human vulnerability. The title refers to our shared mortality, our finite existence on this earth. At one point, “bone clocks” is used by one of the immortals as a derogatory term for humans. But in the end it feels like our limited time makes it all the more precious, all the more sweet. And even in the bleakness of the final chapter, there is hope for the future. It is not the total victory one might get in Harry Potter, but it is something. And that’s way better than total victory.

It has been a few weeks since I finished The Bone Clocks. In that time, I’ve read a number of reviews and interviews, and listened to a handful of podcasts about it. Most reviewers give it high praise. As time passes and the details of the story settle or whisp away like dust motes, I find myself more willing to forgive section five. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a painful experience at the time. I’m forgiving because I’m forgetting all the details, all the language. The quote from the Woods article brings some of it back. So while I would like to give The Bone Clocks high praise, there’s a major caveat. Section five. Damn section five.

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