The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (2014) 595p.
The Bone Clocks marks a return to David Mitchell’s love for a fractured narrative that crosses time and space, as we saw in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas. It begins on a hot summer’s day in Kent in 1984, as fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes runs away from home after a fight with her mother. Other segments involve different characters, all linked to Holly in some way, and we follow the course of her life’s loves and losses into the present and the near future.
But The Bone Clocks is also a fantasy novel. It involves – not to give too much away, as far too many reviews do – a battle between immortals. These figures remain in the background at first, in strange encounters which are alarming and intriguing. (There’s a particularly memorable scene as character Hugo Lamb is confronted in the Christmas snow outside his house by a homeless man he spoke to earlier that day, and it becomes apparent that the man’s body is being possessed by someone else entirely.) This background war eventually bursts into the main scene in the book’s penultimate chapter, and perhaps goes a little too far in terms of its expository vocabulary. Again, I don’t wish to give too much away, but while I would have been disappointed if this aspect of the book wasn’t explored more deeply, I don’t think I wanted to go that deep, and it was something of a relief when that segment ends and places us in The Bone Clocks’ final section, in a world ravaged by climate change and fuel exhaustion, dominated by a powerful China and slouching towards apocalypse.
The Bone Clocks has predictably been attacked in a number of quarters for committing the cardinal sin of involving genre elements. I can only be puzzled by this. Were these critics reading the same David Mitchell as everyone else over the past fifteen years? Have they not also travelled along the Mongolian steppe as a disembodied spirit in Ghostwritten, lived among the post-apocalyptic Hawaiian tribes in Cloud Atlas, watched a ninja raid on a monastery in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet? Granted, The Bone Clocks does marry the fantasy and science fiction of books like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas and the realism of books like Number9dream and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet much more strongly than anything he has previously written. I can understand why some readers might find it slightly jarring. But if you expected a straight-laced “literary” novel you have only yourself to blame. Mitchell has built his career on the fanciful and the fantastic.
I suspect part of this snobbishness also comes from his writing style. I love Mitchell’s vivacious prose. He has an effortless way of emphasising the colour and the beauty of life, whether he’s painting a picture of a hot summer’s day in Kent, a teenage girl and boy eating fish and chips on a beach and watching the sunset; a heaving pub in snowy Cambridge before the Christmas break; a Swiss chalet in the Alps; the “nuclear sunshine” of my own hometown of Perth, Australia. A lot of critics refer to his style with phrases like “fireworks” or “pyrotechnics” or “colour and movement,” with a disapproving tone. This attitude, I’m sure, comes from the same wellspring as the idea that genre elements are a disqualification. This is what makes a David Mitchell novel such a useful litmus test for determining whether a critic is somebody who genuinely appreciates fiction for the joy and wonder it can bring, or whether they’re a crusty old bore with a rigid belief that serious fiction isn’t supposed to be colourful, imaginative, or popular; someone who believes that Real Literature is supposed to be austere.
Enough of that, anyway. I enjoyed The Bone Clocks tremendously, as I expected to. It falters in parts and is not quite the brilliant novel Cloud Atlas was, but it is nonetheless the best novel I’ve read so far this year, the finest fantasy novel of the year, and another grand accomplishment from one of the world’s greatest living writers.