The Bone Clocks

David Mitchell
The Bone Clocks Cover

The Bone Clocks


There will likely be some minor spoilers in this review....

I feel quite conflicted about this book. Part of me loved it, really, really enjoyed it. Each of the constituent parts of the book I liked. I enjoyed the story, I loved the writing and thought the characterisation was fantastic. It's just as a 'whole' it felt that some things were just missing.

The book spans humanity's distant past and our near future, it's scope is global as the characters flit across the world. The life and times of Holly Sykes is the thread that runs through the book from her teenage years in 1985 to her old age in 2043. She's caught in the middle of a war between people who effectively live forever (with the means of sustaining immortality determining whether one is a 'good' immortal or a 'bad' one...).

I loved Holly's character. I found her really likeable and sympathetic, I rooted for her throughout. At each stage of her life Mitchell manages to present a different perspective of her. I really liked how she is fiercely independent, filled with love and compassion yet doesn't take shit from anyone.

I loved the first couple of hundred pages of this book. The first section of the book, set in Gravesend in 1985 is perfect. Mitchell captures the spirit of the time really well, he perfectly manages to capture the essence of being a working class teen in the 1980's (of course being a few years older than me, of course he's well placed to remember the time). The sights and sounds of the era are captured so very well. I think he described what it was like to work in an 'old-fashioned British boozer' really well. I could almost taste that stale beer and fag smell pubs had every morning before 'opening up'.

Young Holly has a much older boyfriend who it is pretty obvious is treating her like a doormat and of course Holly can't see it. She has a row with her mum when she finds out she is seeing the older man. Inside Holly's head we are assured of her certainty of her starting a new life (taking little with her but including her new 'Talking Heads' LP) and as an outsider looking in we can see her naivety. It is stunning. I think many adults can identify with the false surety we conducted our love affairs in our youth. It's perfect. When every sensible option screams 'go home', Holly does what teenagers have done forever and keeps going. I love the detail here, other characters drop in temporarily and they all have a fully fleshed background and stories of their own. It doesn't feel like waste though when these incidental characters move on - it makes the novel and the world come so much more alive. It's genuine and real.

I guess 'interconnectivity' is a major theme here. Some characters are gone quickly without much in passing. Others crop up throughout the novel and seemingly innocuous links later become pretty much strong plot threads. I hadn't read any Mitchell before this book but I am aware that some of the characters had made appearances in other works of his. I guess that we shouldn't be surprised if some of the people from this one crop up again in future. The two middle class lefties selling 'Socialist Worker' and the young woman who advises Holly at the strawberry farm have stayed with me for some time.

The book then seemingly shifts to a completely different set of characters. The focus of the book is then on a bunch of Cambridge scholars in the early 1990's. Mitchell's characterisation is perfect. He takes a broadly over-privileged group of shits, tremendously caricatured and turns them into believable characters, whose interests you don't exactly root for but at least I can understand them. I can't help think that there is a bit of unrestrained class warfare going on here but maybe that's me putting my values onto the authors. I kind of wanted bad stuff to happen to these characters and was largely pleased when bad things did happen. The central character of this piece is Hugo Lamb, an amoral con artist whose notion of 'friendship' is rather loose. These are the kind of characters I usually hate and again Mitchell does a great job getting me to root for a Grade 'A' scumbag!

Hugo, on a skiing trip to Switzerland meets a beautiful young woman in a bar. She is not interested in him, yet he pursues her all the same. In a short period of time in the novel we have a beautiful love story. It's relatively short but barriers fall, two hearts yearn for each other - even if one is melting slower than the other. It's a story of choices and of what the heart wants most - power or love. I found this section quite heart-wrenching in the sense of again, thinking back to one's youth where you remember all the things you DIDN'T say, or the date you somehow decided not to go on. Life is all about choices and our lives could have turned out very differently if we had made different choices. This may sound a little overblown but I think I fell in love with Holly Sykes a little in her apartment one snowy night in Switzerland.

The side threads and plot strands are delicious here - we've got high class pimpery, the death of the aristocracy, con jobs, high stakes gambling - it's fantastic! However, I think one theme coming out here is that of male sexuality and the yearning for intimacy - we can be quite needy at times! Throughout the book you can almost guarantee that once a male character crops up there will be an investigation into his perceived emasculation. It's all about needing some love. It's all about needing some love from Holly Sykes I think...

We jump forward again to around 2004 with the focus this time being Holly's marriage problems from the perspective of her husband. The novel then wanders off into a discussion of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and we have yet another side story seemingly unrelated to the main story.

Mitchell seems to then get all meta on us by having a whole section of the book focussed on a novelist who has only the most tenuous of links to Holly originally (although this does develop into something else). One of the minor characters from earlier in the book is brought to the fore and there is a whole new escapade. I really enjoyed this part of the book but I couldn't help but think that the fictional author, complaining about putting a fictional author in his fictional book was the real life author investigating nature of writing and validation through sales and positive reviews. Is Mitchell speaking for himself here? Delivering a few barbs to the literary festival circuit, publishers and advances perhaps?

So far I have deliberately not mentioned the ongoing war between the immortals. The story intertwines with the various plots and sub-plots throughout the book. At times it is very Murakami-esque (to be honest I'd say that, I love Murakami and see influences everywhere, even when they are not really there...) Some immortals are just more or less born immortal and when their body dies they jump into a new one. Other immortals are 'forever young' and stay young by 'soul harvesting' children. Delicious. Said immortals have got loads of psychic powers like crazy mind attacks, jedi mind tricks, leaping in and out of each other's brains. Holly too appears to be a conduit for psychic energy with strange things happening to her throughout the book

Once all the little threads come together we head off to the 'final battle'. It all seems a little silly at times with 'timeless psychics' vs. 'mean vampires' - it's like a swathe of young adult fantasy. I handwaved a lot of this and ran with it. It wasn't the strongest section of the book but at least it led to a suitable dramatic ending which was quite satisfying. I quite enjoyed magic powers being flung about. And that should have been the end of the book...

Except that it isn't and we have a final section of Holly living in some post-apocalyptic Ireland ravaged by a global Environmental catastrophe. As a standalone section it's fine but I kind of think it was meandering its way towards a conclusion. I was satisfied with the ending but I'm just not sure it hung together all that well for me.

I really don't think I have given the novel justice. I feel I could talk for hours about this book to someone who has read it about all the little nuances and points of interest. There is lots going on. Mitchell is a fantastic writer and I am sure I will read more of his work. Very, very good, but not perfect.