The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell


Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

I finished reading The Bone Clocks in late August. It is a complex work that (I thought) required some contemplation before writing a review — although I did post a summary of my thoughts over at Mookse’s Booker Prize forum. When the Booker jury left Mitchell’s novel off its short list, I’ll admit that reviewing it here slipped down my list of priorities.

Two months later, I figured it was finally time to opine on The Bone Clocks here. And when I reviewed what I had said over at Mookse’s forum, I have to admit I couldn’t make many improvements. So here’s what I had to say only days after finishing the novel — I can only say now that in memory, these initial thoughts hold up very well:

While I have ranked The Bone Clocks as the best of the six Booker longlisters that I have read, that endorsement does come with significant caveats. Like the other five, it has weaknesses as well as strengths — for this reader, the strengths were enough to forgive the parts that did not land with me.

booker logoFor those who know Mitchell’s writing, this is much more like Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten than Jacob de Zoet or Black Swan Green — although it should be noted that some characters from his previous novels do reappear briefly here. Much like Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks is a series of linked novellas — six in this case, the first set in 1984, the last in 2043. Unlike Cloud Atlas, however, one character — Holly Sykes — appears in all six and is an important “physical” presence in each.

Novella one introduces us to her as a 15-year-old who runs away from her father’s pub in Gravesend to take up with her boy friend — whom she finds in bed with her alleged best friend. She runs away again and spends a few days on the lam where she has some weird experiences — and Mitchell introduces us to some characters who will play bigger roles in later sections.

The main character in novella two (set in 1991) is Hugo Lamb whom we meet as a Cambridge undergraduate. He is also a card cheat and a thief of valuable stamps (from a brigadier who has dementia). Mitchell applies his substantial satirical talents to good effect not just in Cambridge but in the Swiss Alps where the college toffs head for a Christmas holiday of skiing and drugs. In this one, Holly shows up as a lounge waitress on that holiday — she and Hugo spend a weird night together (this is Mitchell, so weird is another continuing presence).

In novella three (2004), war correspondent Ed Brubeck (whom we met in novella one) is the focus — he is Holly’s partner and they have a daughter. Mitchell again demonstrates excellent observational and narrative skills — this time around a family crisis (the daughter disappears at a family wedding) and some quite good scenes from various Mid-East conflicts.

Fading novelist Crispin Hershey is the “star” of novella four (2015). He’s another Cambridgite, had some early successes and is now struggling — his latest effort meant to mark his “return to form” has been savaged by one of the students we met in novella two who is now a well-regarded critic. Holly by this time has written a book about some of her paranormal experiences and the paths of the two cross at various book festivals. Again, Mitchell segues into some delightful writing about backbiting and outright back stabbing in the literary world which made this section highly readable.

I said Holly was the “physical” link in the books — this being the Mitchell of Cloud Atlas, there is also a paranormal, mystical one. In the first novella, a pre-teen Holly heard voices from “the radio people” and had some “precognitive” experiences (that’s what her own best-selling book is about). These other-worldly references become more prominent in the next three novellas and take over completely in novella five (2025). In this one, Holly gets hooked up with the Atemporal Horologists who wage a psychosoteric war with the Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Order of Sidelhorn Pass. I won’t even attempt to describe it.

Novella six (2043) returns to Holly, now in her seventies and living in a protected zone of Ireland — we are into serious post-apocalyptic, dystopian territory here as Mitchell ties up both the physical and paranormal threads.

I loved the first four novellas — Mitchell has an eye and a voice that acutely captures his version of reality. The final two were very much a stress — I have a deep aversion for “booga booga” novels and films (that is the phrase that Mrs. KfC and I apply when books or films head deep into paranormal, religious cult, mystical, dystopian turf). Having said that, I am quite aware that that is often where Mitchell chooses to head and I was hardly surprised. And I would have to admit that it is a tribute to his talents that I read through them with only a minimum of distaste as opposed to the loathing that I’d normally experience. And even those two sections had their bright moments, despite my negative bias.

As I said at the start, definitely some weaknesses for this reader — but the good parts were more than strong enough to offset them. I’d even rank The Bone Clocks above Cloud Atlas, which had been my favorite Mitchell up to this point.

Again, when I returned to these initial thoughts I found they held up very well. I usually include excerpts to indicate a writer’s style and tone — there are none here, because Mitchell uses a different version of voice in each of the six sections. And, for what it is worth, as much as I appreciated the eventual Booker winner (Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North), The Bone Clocks would have been my choice as the best of this year’s Booker offerings. With winter (and time for thoughtful reading) coming on, I would not hesitate to recommend it.


15 Responses to “The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell”

  1. Lisa Hill Says:

    Ah, your review is worth the wait. I bought this as soon as I heard it was somewhat like Cloud Atlas, and now I see that I will almost certainly enjoy it.
    I must admit, though I am thrilled about Richard Flanagan’s win, I feel for David Mitchell. It was such a strong year for the Booker when he was shortlisted for Cloud Atlas: Colm Toibin’s The Master – also shortlisted – would have been a formidable opponent if nothing else. And now he’s missed out again…


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Mitchell has not had good luck in the Booker. I would have had no quarrel with the jury had they chose Flanagan over this one in the final result — I can’t believe that they left it off the shortlist.


  2. ebookclassics Says:

    Great review! Very interesting, I didn’t know the book was a series of novellas.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      The publisher doesn’t describe it as a series of novellas — but that was certainly how I experienced it. As with Cloud Atlas, Mitchell jumps from one story line to another and each has a both a distinctive tone but also becomes part of the whole. Part of what I like about Mitchell as an author is his ability to carry off that kind of double structure.


  3. Kerry Says:

    I am surprised that you would rate this as better than Cloud a Atlas. Perhaps I overreacted to the “booga booga” elements. I certainly reacted negatively to them. I also thought one of the strengths of Cloud Atlas was turned on its head here. Specifically, the theme of the importance of human dignity and moral perseverance despite knowledge that you will lose and evil will win, at least the battle and possibly the war. At most, good will not finally and conclusively triumph, but must always struggle with the weaker, losing hand. It is acting with moral purpose knowing pain and failure are the reward that makes his characters and his theme compellingly. To me. This felt much more conventional (trite) in theme.

    He can write an intimate scene like nobody’s business, though. As you say, he closely observes human interactions. Some of those parts were especially good, so maybe I let my expectations overwhelm the successes he did manage.

    Still, my least favorite Mitchell.


  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    As you can tell from my review, I can understand what produced your unenthusiastic response. I suspect what produced our parting of ways is that I put more weight on Mitchell’s sardonic take on current reality (and human interactions) and less on the metaphysical aspects. From reactions that I have seen, I don’t think we are the only two people who have such a divergent evaluation — The Bone Clocks seems to produce both versions in a number of people.


    • Lee Monks Says:

      I entirely agree with everything you say here, right down to the fact that I felt the last two parts were the weakest.

      Mitchell, in a recent interview, admits that he “can only seem to write novellas” and so The Bone Clocks is indeed what you suggest: a series of linked novellas. Whether or not we can also call this an overarching novel is a matter for debate. I think you can, but when the author is confessing to having to link-up separate strands in such a way, you wonder (or I did) how much this may play on the minds of Booker judges.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thanks for that — I had not seen that interview.

      I don’t have any problem with the idea of a novel consisting of a number of linked stories, which do combine to create an overarching story line. Certainly, there are examples of authors who produce linked story collections (Olive Kitteridge is getting renewed attention here now) that create a broader picture when taken as a whole. Having said that, I do think Mitchell’s “story-telling” abilities are shown to best advantage when the particular piece of canvas is not too large.

      I suppose that approach inevitably leads to parts that are stronger and parts that are weaker. And I suspect that does pose a problem with juries — as much as I liked the novel, if I was on a jury and Kerry was arguing how weak the last two sections were I think I would be inclined to accept his argument and move on to another book.


      • Kerry Says:

        Great points. And I should have said thank you, Kevin, for the excellent review, because you accurately portrayed the book and reminded me of the parts Mitchell wrote exceptionally well. The Lamb/Sykes romance section was exceedingly well-written. If we were on a jury and you pointed that out, I may be convinced to shortlist it and temper some of my negativity vis a vis the final sections.

        For the record, I like novels/books structured as linked stories/novellas.


  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It does sound strongly reminiscent of Ghostwritten. I had planned to read his Number9Dream next, but I keep somehow never getting round to it. I wonder if I’d actually be better off trying one of the ones less like that, more like de Zoet or Black Swan Green.

    Obviously I have more tolerance for SF elements than you Kevin, but there’s part of me more curious to see what he’s like when he’s not doing sprawling intergenerational SF sagas.

    Good review as ever. Particularly given there were parts of the book you clearly found much weaker.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I quite liked Black Swan Green, if you do head in that direction (which I don’t think is a bad idea). A couple of the sections of this one that I did like were quite like the atmosphere of Black Swan Green.


      • Max Cairnduff Says:

        Thanks. I’ll take a look at Black Swan Green. I’ve tried to start Number9Dream twice but both times rather bounced off the (perfectly well written) first chapter. I suspect it’s in the mental category of sprawling reads for me, books I might relax into for a fair chunk of time that are essentially entertainment, but that’s not presently where I am in my reading.


  6. Mary K Gilbert Says:

    I have just finished reading this book and loved it. Like you Kevin I’m wary of `booga booga’ and I found the Labyrinth chapter completely nuts but I think Mitchell was having some fun at our expense. It felt like being part of some elaborate computer game. The last novella was chilling and all too plausible. I disagree with Lee here. I thought it was one of the stronger chapters and it remains in my mind. I’ve been thinking that my children will be Holly’s age in 2043 and worrying about that…
    David Mitchell is an extraordinarily clever writer and sometimes it seemed that he was skipping the length and breadth of human history and picking out the bits he liked. This did become a little overwhelming at times but what a terrific read overall and what ambition!


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I like your notion of “picking out the bits he liked” because I think it is a good summary of his work. I do think he has an overall picture in mind (given the way he keeps bringing back incidents and characters from previous works) but it is simply too complex to just be presented — so he opts for his widely-varied (but usually very entertaining) novellas to look at detailed aspects of the bigger picture.

      I’m not sure he was “having fun at our expense” with the Labyrinth novella but I too was inclined to be generous with him on it — as I admitted, I did get through it which is a tribute to the author.


  7. Sal Says:

    I enjoy Mitchell, he’s a wonderful writer and storyteller, but whereas you enjoy his take on reality, I find in that regard he has little to say what hasn’t been said before. Not that that matters but besides great storytelling I feel he has little else to offer. I thought Ghostwritten was brilliant but was disappointed by the ending (I almost felt deceived!). Equally so for Cloud Atlas. I couldn’t get through The Bone Clocks – I made it a little past the halfway mark before I lent it to a friend who greatly enjoyed it. Some stories stay with you and become part of your point of view. So far (and I’ve only read the three aforementioned titles) that hasn’t happened yet with one of his stories.


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