I’ve been a fan of David Mitchell since reading Cloud Atlas in my early twenties. Since then, I have enjoyed almost everything he has written, so I was excited to finally get round to The Bone Clocks. I’ve somehow never tackled it, possibly because at 500 pages it’s quite a time investment.
One of the strengths of his fiction is the unexpected, which The Bone Clocks has in spades. It’s similar in structure to Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten, where every chapter has a new character and new perspective. What he does incredibly well within this framework is disrupt the standard narrative. The first chapter, dealing with Holly Sykes, has a sudden interruption from a strange character, from a different realm entirely. Suddenly the story is dangerous and we have lurched in a weird new place. The effect is one of disorientation as we think we know where the story is going, but then it is terrifyingly derailed. The character speaks in an information dump, which becomes overwhelming as there are too many unknown terms that we do not understand. Of course, everything is becomes clearer later, but the reader does not expect the interruption.
Another strength is the specificity of his writing. Each character has a distinct voice that is richly detailed. The narrative shifts forward in time with each chapter and Mitchell crafts a whole new, distinct world each time. He piles in lots of specific details, trusting the reader to keep up. This gives the interlocking narratives increasing power and potency as we head through the stories, with characters recurring and small moments in earlier chapters becoming more significant. The specificity of place and character allows the novel to remain grounded as it shifts towards the fantastical elements and the future. It allows the reader to trust Mitchell, even as he jumps through time and space.
All of the fantasy and character hopping could be seen as mere gimmicks if the novel did not have a solid foundation. Luckily, the novel has deep ideas that underpin it, exploring ideas of mortality and the inevitability of death. Through the fantastical, Mitchell explores the desire of everyone to live forever and the impossibility of that happening. But it is in the characters of Holly Sykes that the tyranny of mortality is most evident. Not part of the Horologists who can live forever, she lives a mostly ordinary life and glimpses the possibility of immortality. As the novel relentlessly barrels into the future, she can never change the past or go back, as much as she wants to. She can also not bring back her family members who have been lost in tragic accidents. By the last chapter, the fear of mortality has expanded to the fate of the planet and of the species. It is terrifying in its bleakness and the fear that one day, all of society will collapse. But life carries on, even though individuals may die and for all the pessimism, there a brief glimmer of hope by the end.
I haven’t even touched on the references to his other works, and how it is all part of an ‘uber-novel’. Other characters from his previous novels turn up and are given independent life here. The writing is sharp, detailed and frequently funny. The novel, although long, is richly detailed and never dull for a moment. It demands your full attention and rewards it with depth and interest. He is quite like any other writer in the scale of his ambition.
Now I desperately want to read Slade House.