The Bone Clocks is David Mitchell’s sixth novel. Long-listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize before its publication last September, eyebrows were raised when it failed to make the shortlist.
I haven’t read enough of the shortlisted novels to comment on the justness or otherwise of the judges’ decision.What I can suggest is that Mitchell is a novelist burdened by the weight of expectation.
It is impossible to categorise Mitchell as a writer because his work ranges across several genres. For me, his writing is best defined by his debut, Ghostwritten, and by his best known novel, Cloud Atlas. These books are both highly experimental, consisting of separate yet interconnecting stories written in a variety of voices and literary styles. Both works challenge and extend existing expectations of what the novel form can do, how it can be defined.
I reckon that, when novelists become known for experimenting in such ways, they raise expectations that their works will contain earth-shattering truths that will Show Us The Way. Approaching The Bone Clocks with this expectation will probably lead to disappointment. It certainly provides myriad examples of Mitchell’s clear-eyed and cutting intelligence; of his ability to encapsulate a universal truth in an original manner and with admirable brevity. The giveaway there, though, is the phrase ‘universal truth’: the insights the novel provides are of the ‘nod of recognition’, rather than the mindbending, variety. Looking to Mitchell for answers dilutes the impact of his prose and ruins the enjoyment. For, what The Bone Clocks really is is unusually well-written, inventive entertainment.
But what is it all about? A helpful starting point is the scene in which Mitchell’s novelist character, Crispin Hershey, recalls a savaging he received at the hands of a reviewer:
So why is Echo Must Die such a decomposing hog? One: Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliche that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look (Mitchell, p. 281).
Here for the first – and possibly only – time, Mitchell resembles Taylor Swift. Swift demonstrates a similar concern with her own artistic reputation, expressed in the manner of an unpopular child poking fun at themselves before the bullies get the chance.
There is a grain of truth in this self-referential review. In including it, Mitchell pre-empts the critical mauling he can anticipate The Bone Clocks receiving. The ‘top note’ of the novel is a realist narrative, perhaps a bit more in keeping with Mitchell’s more conventional works like Black Swan Green. This narrative follows Holly Sykes from 1984, when she is a teenage runaway, to 2043, when she is an elderly woman in Ireland enduring the aftermath of a global crisis triggered by the decline of the world’s oil reserves. So we can start to see the ‘State of the World’ element creeping in there: the message here is that, if we all carry on the way we’re going, this dystopian vision could well become a reality. A familiar but always timely refrain.
Along the way, Holly encounters Ed Brubeck who becomes a war journalist, covering the Iraq war and the crisis in Syria. There is, then, very much a State of the Nation novel in here. This strand is not all that original or insightful, but it is well executed. The characters are fully realised and their stories compelling.
Like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks consists of disparate, interconnecting stories. Where the latter differs is that there is more continuity; we stick with Holly and her family throughout and it is always pleasurable and intriguing to encounter her through the decades.
Interwoven with Holly’s story is, as the fictional review hints, a fantasy sub-plot. As a child, Holly hears voices belonging to those she dubs the Radio People. She also has an ‘imaginary’ friend, Miss Constantin. It transpires that Holly is caught up in a war between two groups of ‘Atemporals’ (they are sort of immortal; it’s complicated). The ‘goodies’ are known as Horologists, the ‘baddies’ are Anchorites. Most of the time, this aspect of the plot merely emerges at intervals. This is always entertaining and very well done; it doesn’t clash violently with the State of the World concerns at all. However, it doesn’t exactly enhance them, either. One strand doesn’t comment on or illuminate another (unless I’m missing something. Highly plausible); they just happen to exist alongside each other because … well, this is a David Mitchell novel. It is when the fantasy element takes over completely, in the penultimate chapter, that the novel falters. There is too much lengthy exposition and too many unnecessary flashbacks in this part. The whole section is heavy-handed and tedious.
Aside from this one rather tedious section, the novel is a fun and memorable ride with strong characters: it is a pleasure to bump into them over multiple narratives and over many decades. The two contrasting strands don’t really clash, but nor do they seem to hang together for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. The novel’s themes are enticing, though. The Bone Clocks‘ key concerns are with the transience of time, ageing and death (from what I can gather – and I may be completely, embarrassingly, woefully wrong – ‘bone clocks’ are faces: they are made of bone and demonstrate the passage of time). Mitchell provides some thought-provoking reflections on this subject, suggesting that there are different, ‘non-supernatural’ varieties of immortality.
All in all, The Bone Clocks is a dazzlingly ambitious, ultimately flawed but hugely enjoyable read. This is what fiction should aim to do, even if it is almost certain to fall short of its ambitions.