Reviewed by Sakura Gooneratne
I get up and go out through the back door. The cold air shocks my skin as I go, ‘Shoo, shoo!’ to the cat. The feline hunter leaps onto the garden shed. It watches me. Its tail sashays. The mangled bird is twitching in the black cat’s mouth.
I hear the boomy scrape of an aeroplane.
A twig snaps. I am intensely alive.
Once again I am swept away by David Mitchell’s mastery of language and plot in his newest novel, The Bone Clocks. Like Cloud Atlas, which astonished readers with its daring structure and mixture of genres, The Bone Clocks is a heady blend of contemporary, literary and science fiction, one that succeeds only because Mitchell is such a dazzling storyteller. Mitchell has stated he wants to create a literary cosmology where all of his novels, however discrete they may first appear, are somehow linked. And each appearance of a familiar character, however small in their original novel, serves a little frisson of excitement, a nudge of recognition. How intoxicating. I wish I had read Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet just so I could recognise them. Have no fear, I will definitely read them now. I’m just berating myself I didn’t read them sooner because I was saving them for a rainy day, such precious reading experiences Mitchell provides.
One of the strengths of Mitchell’s writing is the ease with which he draws his readers into his story. There is an easy swagger, a sly wit, a mish mash of styles which work beautifully. And each style, be it contemporary, literary lovey, dystopian, is complete in itself, the only thing connecting them in The Bone Clocks is Holly Sykes, Mitchell’s feisty, mouthy protagonist who goes through life carrying a deep sorrow. We first meet Holly as a fifteen year old, running away from home into the arms of her older boyfriend after a fight with her mother. But things don’t unfold as planned and after the disappearance of her brother Jacko, Holly stumbles from one crisis to another. The Bone Clocks follows episodes in Holly’s life interspersed with those who have a connection with her, from Ed Bruebeck, the father of her child, to Hugo Lamb, privileged and self-serving, and Crispin Hershey, washed-out writer and later friend. And amongst them we encounter the horologist Marinus and his nemesis Imaculée Constantin, who haunts Holly’s childhood, characters outside of Holly’s apparent reality.
It’s difficult to describe The Bone Clocks; there are so many facets and characters, some cut off rather abruptly, some fleshed out more than the others, events that switch from what we think of as the real world, from war in Iraq, to the realms of SF. There is a script and counterscript which fashions the world and is manipulated by a privileged few who exist outside of time. There are good atemporal characters vs. those who literally feed off humans in an almost vampiric fashion. I loved the mix of contemporary world events, mythology, technology and ecology which Mitchell uses to fashion his version of our future world, a frightening vision where the excesses of modern life has eroded the earth’s capacity to sustain life as we know it.
It seems that Mitchell can do no wrong in whatever genre he chooses to write. In an era when marketing a book means it is slotted into a particular genre whether a writer wishes it or not, it’s incredible that Mitchell manages to weave in and out of genres, especially bringing them together in one book. It may seem disconcerting at first, but it works. Not all the chapters are to my taste — the time-travelling portions seem the weakest and most generic — but I particularly loved the sections featuring Crispin Hershey. His jaded, biting take on the literary celebrity life, complete with surviving the literary festival circuit and a feud with a longtime colleague, is in complete contrast to his spectacularly disintegrating personal life. The words just trip off the page, effortless. And I also loved Holly Sykes and her grounded practicality which is the only thing keeping her sane in a world resembling the gravitational collapse of a star. We see her as a rebellious teenager, a young woman coming to terms with grief, a mother and finally a grandmother, desperate to save her family. Mitchell paints one of the most frightening visions of the future where energy is the most sought after prize in a world struggling with being unplugged and where brute force becomes the only currency. And orbiting her are clusters of characters from the ‘good’ atemporals such as Marinus and Ethel, the ‘bad’ soul suckers such as Imaculée Constantin (don’t you just love that name?), to her family, lovers and friends, all somehow interconnected, however tenuously. I love the the little connections that may not prove to have reason, just that they are there, serving to bind you further into Mitchell’s cosmos.
But the thing that elevates reading one of Mitchell’s novels is his mastery of language. Each sentence is beautifully constructed; each sentence sings. Not only do you want to know how his story will unfold, you also want to take your time savouring his writing because it dazzles. He wears his mastery lightly, there is a sense of fun in his work which, I am sure, many would kill to have. So yes, The Bone Clocks may not be perfect because it tries to do something few would attempt, but it’s dazzling and gorgeous and I want more.
Sakura blogs at Chasing Bawa.
David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks (Sceptre, London, Sept 2014) 978-0340921609, hardback, 608 pages.