The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell – Review

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell - US cover

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If you’ve come into contact with any of David Mitchell’s work before, you’ll be well-acquainted with the sort of genre-switching, time-slipping, scene-shifting fiction that the author is best known for. A film adaptation by the Wachowski siblings in 2012 brought his lauded tapestry of souls, Cloud Atlas (2004), to a wider audience. 2014 heralds the debut of Mitchell’s sixth novel, The Bone Clocks, which sees the author embracing SFF with greater rigour, utilising a distinct fantastical plotline that weaves through his signature structure of multiple storylines.

Mitchell presents us with a series of six narrative segments – or novellas, as the author has likened them – all which have their own independent storyline, but which interlink through recurring protagonist, Holly Sykes. Each segment shadows Holly’s life over a period of sixty years. This takes us from her teenage rebellion in 1984 England all the way to her aging witness to the close of civilisation in 2043 Ireland. Holly’s point of view bookends the novel, whilst the other four segments are told from the perspective of different characters – her one-night stand, her long-term partner, her writer friend, and her immortal guardian psychic.

This immortal psychic is known in Mitchell’s world as an atemporal, the friendlier sort belonging to a caste known as Horology. When a Horologist dies they cannot move on. Instead, their soul transplants, forty-nine days later, into a fresh host, displacing whatever sentience was there with their own. From this new body they are able to pick up whatever tasks they were doing in their previous life, including perfecting the art of psychosoterica (as Mitchell calls his magic). There is, however, a more sinister method of securing immortality, and with it, a halt on aging. This path, known as the Shaded Way, is followed by an elite band called the Anchorites. They lure psychically-charged children into the Chapel of Dusk, a place in the literally-realised borderlands between life and death. Here, the victim’s chakra is ‘decanted’ into a substance which the Anchorites drink to ward off the mortal condition. This is the source of contention between the two bands of atemporals: the Horologists aim to dissuade the ‘carnivores’ from their soul-stealing, whilst the Anchorites feel persecuted by those with the privilege of naturally-gained immortality. It is the ongoing crossfire of this war that impacts upon the mundane characters of the novel, including the psychically-sensitive Holly.

Out of the six separate novellas that make up The Bone Clocks, only one concerns itself explicitly with the hidden war of the atemporals. The rest are the preserve of ‘normal’ characters, living natural lives, but it is a tribute to Mitchell’s writing that these storylines are largely preferable to the overarching fantasy. Mitchell’s estimation of character is spot-on, and after establishing a character’s voice, he sticks to it with remarkable consistency. This is especially true of the fifteen year-old Holly. A less-disciplined writer may be tempted to write outside the experience of his chosen point of view, but Mitchell sets out his limitations and thrives within them. The result is a series of distinctive voices that are wholly believable. Holly’s teenage naivety, for example, is both sympathetic and likeable, without ever appearing heavy-handed. Later on, her thirty-something self is taut with the stresses of a young daughter, a rebellious boyfriend, and an uncertain future. Her partner, meanwhile, has his own stories of life as a journalist in war-torn Iraq, circa 2004. This is an ongoing feature in the novel, where each time period is dated by specific events and cultural phenomena. This could easily have become gimmicky, but events (such as the Iraq War and the UK miners’ strike) are more than just contextualising, and instead merge with the subject of the narrative, opening up political criticism and debate.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell - UK cover

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Mitchell has dubbed The Bone Clocks his ‘mid-life crisis novel’, and the theme of death and aging is obvious within the story of his inter-warring immortals. It asks the question anyone might idly ponder at some point in their lives: what price immortality? How far would you suspend your morals to gain youth, life, and power beyond the scope of normal existence? Whilst the troubles of the atemporals are interesting, they struggle to attract sympathy from the mortal reader. In some ways this is symptomatic of a larger problem with the overarching fantasy plot. Its appearance through much of the novel is abrupt and without explanation, and whilst it is a fascinating slow-reveal to discover more about the supernatural war, it can sometimes be an unwelcome diversion. The exceptionally well-paced narratives work just fine without needing to stray from the mundane. It doesn’t help that the atemporals themselves are given only a brief amount of narrative space. Even the antagonists, whilst decently drawn and appropriately threatening, lack the attention needed to really develop. Only at the climax do we finally get an idea of their relationships and interactions. It’s in Holly’s story where we find greater empathy with the novel’s theme. Over the course of the narrative we see the not-quite halcyon freedoms of Holly’s youth contrasted against the trials and responsibilities of motherhood. In the final segment, Holly’s old age underlines a powerful sense of helplessness in the face of society’s disintegration. When she reflects on earlier, more innocent days, we know exactly what she refers to, as we have accompanied her on that lifelong journey – the reader’s sympathy becomes that much more tangible as a result.

Perhaps the most riveting narrative segment is the last. Following the psychosoteric climax, you’d be forgiven to expect a winding-down, perhaps a more reflective closure to the novel. Not so. Here we meet an older Holly coping with the death throes of civilisation. Set in 2043, society has become victim to a slow-burning apocalypse, a creeping dystopia, with disturbingly familiar features. Gated communities have sprung up as the gap between rich and poor has widened. The digitisation of life and a reliance on the seemingly unlimited resources of the internet have finally met their nemesis. Dwindling supplies of fossil fuels has led to an energy-starved populace, with sweeping blackouts rationing electricity usage and, by extension, our access to knowledge, communication, and much else taken for granted. Meanwhile, in a nod to current anxieties, Ebola is running rampant, and refugees are fleeing the crippled developing world in boatloads. As what Mitchell calls the ‘endarkenment’ settles in, society regresses to medieval standards, where bands of mercenary soldiers rove the countryside, the rich barter resources from castled strongholds, and communities return to authoritarian religion for answers. All these elements make themselves known over the course of the narrative, and with Holly as aged as she is, her prospects look decidedly grim.

Which is why, after this thrilling and unexpected building of tension, the ending comes as a crushing disappointment. A deus ex machina takes place that undermines all of the threat that has amounted to this point. The intervention would have been forgivable if, for example, to benefit from it, some trial had to at first be overcome. That there is no test of character, or climactic resolution to the suspense, leaves an ending that is deflating and so convenient as to be utterly unbelievable. For an author who has powerfully demonstrated his writing prowess – over the previous five hundred or so pages, no less – it is an astonishing cop-out. This is not to say The Bone Clocks as whole suffers because of it – the independent structure of each novella means that the rest of the novel remains blessedly immune.

In spite of the disappointing wrap-up, The Bone Clocks is undoubtedly a novel that demonstrates an author at the peak of his creative powers. Mitchell’s wielding of language is a constant delight. His clever wordplay, strong characterisation, together with a knack for a telling phrase, carries the narrative with adroit capability. Barring a few missteps, Mitchell’s sixth novel feels refined, confident, and consistent, setting a comfortable stride in his innovative approach to fiction. All of which makes The Bone Clocks an utter joy to devour: when a writer’s craft reaches this level of accomplishment, reading becomes a heightened experience. Miss it at your peril.

An edition of this article first appeared at Fantasy Faction on 15th November 2014


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