The Bone Clocks

David Mitchell
The Bone Clocks Cover

Great slipstream, poor fantasy


There are a lot of reviews out there for David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, most of them written by fans and critics who are familiar with, and have expectations of, his work. I'm not and I don't. I've neither read, nor seen, Cloud Atlas, nor any of his other works. I read this simply because the onslaught of marketing was difficult to avoid in early September and the plot caught my attention. A multi-character collage, in an historical and near-future real world setting, where small hints of magic intrude upon daily life and connect the unwitting human participants—sounds like a story I can dig.

Holly Sykes is a rebellious teenager who runs away from home in 1984 and encounters a strange woman named Esther Little, who offers a cup of green tea in exchange for "asylum." Holly has always had strange encounters with vanishing people, so she thinks nothing of it. Then Holly's odd little brother, Jacko, disappears, which devastates her family. We find Holly again in subsequent narratives, each spaced a decade apart. We meet Hugo Lamb in 1991, a blueblood college student with a penchant for long cons; Ed Brubeck in 2004, a war journalist assigned to cover Middle Eastern hot spots; Crispin Hershey in 2015, a dried-up literary author with a sense of snobbish entitlement; and Iris Fenby a.k.a. Marinus in 2025, an Horologist involved in a centuries-old war with the predatory Anchorites. Then we return to Holly's POV in 2043, now an aging grandmother, fending for her family after the collapse of the global economy and its technological infrastructure.

For the most part, The Bone Clocks is a mature, subdued slipstream fantasy, with realism on par with much modern "literary" fiction (which means war and struggling marriages and such). However, some readers with that expectation may need to strengthen their resolves for certain parts of this novel. First-person teenager perspective is an automatic downgrade for many of us who have been burned by too many well-meaning young adult book recommendations, and Mitchell, as a "literary" author, is brave (or is it savvy?) to begin his novel in such a way. It might feel like YA at first, but it's hard not to be enticed by Holly's naïve teenage rebelliousness, and its evident pointlessness is much too sincere to be directed at any reader below the age of twenty.

The narratives following Holly's teen years are more mature, but with their own brand of guileless conflict: Hugo Lamb's sense of invincibility and love; Brubeck's struggle between family and career; Crispin Hershey's inevitable slip from best seller's list. This is where Mitchell shines. Each character is pulsing and alive, separate and distinct from one another. Characters don't have dialogue—they have voices, and their conversations and inner thoughts are neither contrived nor hyperreal. They are interesting. They are engaging. (There were many nights when I planned to read only a few pages before sleep set in, only to find myself two hours later, wide-awake and fully engaged.)

Some readers might take exception to the character of Crispin Hershey, a writer perhaps modeled off of the stodgy old coots Mitchell has encountered in the book world. Crispin is arrogant, condescending, and dangerously jealous, as he is replaced by younger, hipper writers (who might or might not be David Mitchell himself). In one scene, Crispin verbally spars with the female author of "Pale, Male, and Stale: The De(CON?)struction of Post-Post-Feminist Straw Dolls in the New Phallic Fiction" (p. 326). I think this scene bothered a Twitter friend of mine, who found Crispin too familiar to be enjoyable, his presence being too reminiscent of the many controversies that plague SF fandom. I, having grown up in an assertively feminist household with Mary Wollstonecraft and Emily Dickinson held as gods (only exaggerating a little), thought it was hilarious as a mocking tribute to the "PUBLISH AND LOVE ALL THE FEMALE AUTHORS!" argument. To me, the scene is so meta, I can't help but wonder if Mitchell is as conflicted as I am on the SF gender divide. There are times when it feels like Mitchell hates guys like Crispin, but other times when it feels like Mitchell is using the character to voice some unsayable things. Some might find this offensive. I did not.

But then we get to the fourth section of the book, when Mitchell drops the threads of this brilliantly subdued slipstream reality—the threads he weaves so well—and plunges into Super Awesome Sorcerer Fantasy with Expository Dialogue as we Sip Tea narrative. This narrative comes from the Horologist herself, Marinus, and she shares stories of her many lives (a primitive Outback visitor, a nineteenth century Russian peasant) and divulges the tale that's really going on behind the curtains of all of this reality. The conflict between the Horologists, (involuntary recipients of Many-Lives-Syndrome), and the Anchorites, (Eternal Life Seekers who prey on human souls—the bone clocks), in order to postpone mortality. We've seen glimpses of this war in the previous narratives, but it doesn't make sense until Marinus tells us everything.

And, boy, does she tell us everything.

Nothing kills the mystery of magic like telling the reader all about the magic. I think most authors know this—it's certainly how I've been conditioned to receive such fantasies. But Mitchell exposes too much, too quickly about his immortal underworld, even though the reader has already committed to 60% of the novel with its dangling mystical carrots. I would have followed those carrots to the end, perfectly satisfied to never learn about what was really going on in the dusky corners of these peoples' lives. This portion of the novel is rushed, cliché, and clumsily done, and it makes one wonder if all of the winking-and-nudging about the previous writerly character of Crispin was also Mitchell's way of saying, "I am that over-celebrated author. I can do bad things with books, too, but it's okay because I KNOW that I am doing it badly. But I have an advance to earn and maybe I bit off more than can chew with this whole 'genre' thing."

And then the tea talk. Ugh. I don't care if you're writing about horcruxes, or horology, or your previous life as a whore, it's just not interesting when your characters sit around a tea set talking about it. Mr. Mitchell, you know better.

But my main issue with the story is that it's too much like life, in that, despite all the magical sorcery stuff, nothing is really connected beyond coincidence and author convenience. The characters appear in each other's lives, yet we see little reason for those moments. Holly and Hugo have a brief, intense affair, and later, fall on opposite sides of the Horologist-Anchorite war, yet Mitchell fails to play with that tension. Mitchell does a beautiful job of illustrating the war in Iraq, a perfect opportunity to foreshadow and mirror the Horologist-Anchorite war, but if he did, I'm too dense to see it. The characters experience a suicide, disease, and murder, which haunts them, yet it does not factor into the underlying plot. The connections and experiences of the characters are more banal, like real life, and like literary fiction. For genre readers looking for magical connections and supernatural significance, this may be very disappointing.

To sum up this extremely long review (so sorry!), for SF readers, The Bone Clocks is perhaps best viewed as a series of novelettes that occur within the same universe. Had I known better, I would have skipped the fourth "novelette," although fans of outright sorcery fiction might dig it. I doubt there will be many SF readers who will find this novel satisfying in its entirety.