TITLE: The Bone Clocks
AUTHOR: David Mitchell
GENRE: Fiction, Literary Fantasy
"A twig snaps. I am intensely alive."
The Bone Clocks, like Cloud Atlas, is another long, ambitious, post-modern undertaking, a decade-spanning fantasy novel with meta themes throughout, balancing on a pin the battle between good and evil. David Mitchell, the author of both novels, has said he is creating ‘his own Middle Earth’, a meta-fictional, metaphysical universe in which his novels live. And as Mitchell accurately sums up via the narrative of one of his characters: "Think Solaris meets Noam Chomsky via Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Add a dash of Twin Peaks."
Boasting a diverse ensemble cast of both psychic people (prescients) and non-psychic people (bone clocks), the novel is, in a basic sense, about a war between soul-eating psychics and body-swapping, eternal soul guardians. Sound pulpy enough for you? Yet, like A. S. Byatt, Gene Wolfe, or Angela Carter, Mitchell uplifts his material with ease to stunning existential heights, making us care deeply for and understand both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters and the world they live in. Not only does Mitchell know how to write wonderful prose, how to use an incredibly diverse tone of voice through his characters, how to write snapping dialog, and how to carefully plot a narrative - he also seems to be an expert on breaking his reader’s heart...
“Love is a blurring of pronouns. Love is subject and object. The difference between its presence and its absence is the difference between life and death.”
Each section of the novel is set chronologically in a different time period, and with a different narrator. We start off in 1984 in the mind of The Bone Clocks’ lead protagonist, Holly Skyes, an Irish teenager who is in the midst of an abysmal attempt to run away from home. With Holly’s stinging, cynical humor we are thrown to a world of internal teenage agony, loves lost, friends found, and mistakes made on an hourly basis. Yet the predictable rise and fall of Holly’s love life and inner rage gives way to the strange string of events that are happening all around her. A sense of dread builds, and then, let's just say, things get paranormally weird.
The story is structured so that through each section of the novel, Mitchell drives us chronologically further into the future using different characters' viewpoints and voices. We jump from Holly’s 1984 to London and the Swiss Alps in 1991 and briefly experience the mind and life of the brilliantly slimy, Hugo Lamb. Then we are off to 2004, then 2015 and onwards, through different character’s perspectives and their experiences. Despite the great differences in the cast, Mitchell manages to find relatability in each point of view, from the fading literary giant Crispin (my favorite), the warzone journalist Ed, Holly at various stages of life (as a teenager, as a young woman, as a mother, and onwards), to Hugo Lamb the wickedly charming opportunistic adaptor, to the perspective of an eternal body-hopping, multi-gender person named Marinus. Within these narratives, each of which could be complete short stories of sorts, we begin to grasp at the underlying psychic war happening between two fiercely different groups. I won’t get into more details in fear of spoiling the experience for would-be readers, except to say let this story build on you.
Having read now a couple of Mitchell’s books, I have noted he enjoys touching on a theme of the timeless connection between souls. Like all our lives, his characters' stories are not told in a moment or through the lens of one decision but instead their stories are told over time. Or in this case, they are told over lifetimes. The teenage Holly Skyes we meet in 1984 is quite different from the Holly Skyes in 2043, the final section of the novel, yet she is still so truly Holly. In fact, all of Mitchell's characters go through such painfully heartfelt changes, each loses so much, learns so much, and are so layered, that a reader could almost believe these people really exist. A few words from one of his characters persist, “People are icebergs, with just a bit you can see and loads you can’t.”
Structuring the novel in the manner he does, Mitchell gives himself space, timing options, and clarity, to expose those hidden parts of his characters in a way that imparts both sympathy and surprise at what we find beneath the surface. One of my favorite sections deals with the life of the end-of-career literary giant, Hershey Crispin, who bumbles his way through relationships and intrigue — his voice is simultaneously entertaining, pathetically snobbish as only a post-modern writer could be - and yet so human, so venerable.
For a psychic fantasy war novel, The Bone Clocks certainly moves at a leisurely pace. There were moments when I felt the story was slowing down as though it were bogged down by time itself. The long build-up pays off in the final 20% of the novel as Mitchell switches gears to a fast-paced, gripping, and sweaty rhythm. The climactic battle, a showdown if you like, is well worth waiting for and hard to describe; a battle of psychic matter-warping power, satanic icons, body-swapping, death, and destruction. The battles are so well written...
Rhîmes spins his hands and makes sort of snapping motions, and Heidi’s body spins too, herkily-jerkily. Snap, crackle, pop, goes her spine, and her lower jawbone’s half off and blood’s trickling from a hole in her forehead, like a bullet went in. Rhîmes does a backhand slap in the air, and Heidi’s mangled body’s flung against a picture of a robin sat on a spade, then lands on its head and tumbles in a heap.
The most successful section of the novel is the final part, set in 2043, a vision of how modern society could or will inevitably fall, with power grids and internet access failing, food scarce, and countries falling into lawlessness and violence in the midst of a horrible climate crisis apocalypse. It’s staggering for its believability, and I truly hope Mitchell writes an entire novel set in this believable dystopia. It scared the gallstones out of me and made me want to immediately sign up for weapons training and to begin stockpiling food in my already-full garage, currently full of junk. As one character notes in 1991, “When civilisation shuts up shop, a gun’ll be worth any number of university degrees.”
How very true. And the observation below sums up the dismal state of 2043...
“I remember the pictures of seawater flooding Fremantle during the deluge of ’33. Or was it the deluge of ’37? Or am I confusing it with pictures of the sea sluicing into the New York subway, when five thousand people drowned underground? Or was that Athens? Or Mumbai? Footage of catastrophes flowed so thick and fast through the thirties that it was hard to keep track of which coastal region had been devastated this week, or which city had been decimated by Ebola or Ratflu. The news turned into a plotless never-ending disaster movie I could hardly bring myself to watch.”
Mitchell presents a devastating future reality for people like us, people who have grown up and lived through an era of almost-boundless cheap resources (electricity, unlimited internet, boundless water, and food). How can we be so aware of and yet simultaneously oblivious to the destruction we are wreaking upon this planet? It’s summed up beautifully in a paragraph that is so relevant today...
“Five years later, I take a deep, shuddery breath to stop myself crying. It’s not just that I can’t hold Aoife again, it’s everything: 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.”
Today, in December 2019, we appear to be living in the era when we could have saved the planet but didn’t...
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/201 ... earth.html
It’s the believability of this future Mitchell proposes that made the novel’s magic and the psychic battles fade in significance set alongside the very normal, everyday havoc humans are wreaking on planet earth, and on each other. Or in another sense, the depraved group of psychics in the novel who consume and destroy human souls as a way to obtain everlasting life can be seen as a metaphor for the way our current human civilization consumes and destroys our finite resources, with very little thought for the future.
The Bone Clocks isn’t just a carefully plotted, character-driven fantasy story revealing subtle truths about power and the destructive nature of humanity — the novel also is beautifully written. Three times longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Mitchell’s prose is pristine, whimsical, yet always somehow still relaxed. The dialog is sharp, spot-on, but it’s the brilliant inner moments of observed existential revelation that really tie all of Mitchell’s narrators together to the greater storyline and the greater themes of the novel.
On being human, and being alive...
“We live on, as long as there are people to live on in.”
“If you love and are loved, whatever you do affects others.”
On time and living with change...
“If life didn’t change, it wouldn’t be life, it’d be a photograph.”
“I put my hand on the altar rail. 'What if ... what if Heaven is real, but only in moments?”
Compared to Cloud Atlas, this novel is more plot-driven, but Mitchell is still able to discover and retrieve intrinsic truth, bringing life to his characters and making us marvel at the beauty of the human mind, no matter which mind we are talking about.
Except for a few gripes at Mitchell's slow pacing and the sometimes fussiness of his prose, I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Bone Clocks. I felt for Holly, and the people she loved at various points in her life. It’s a long novel, but it feels like a friend with whom I have spent time, an old friend who has shared their heart with me. Now the book is finished, and the people who populated it are gone. I have lost them, and some part of me wants them back. Because of this, I know I will re-read The Bone Clocks. There are just too many secrets left to discover, and rediscover. To close, I leave you with the following passages...
“Then the three of us hug, and if I could choose one moment of my life to sit inside of for the rest of eternity... it'd be now, no question.”
"I'm feeling erased myself, fading away into an invisible woman. For one voyage to begin, another voyage must come to an end, sort of."