Archive for the ‘Mitchell, David (2)’ Category

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

October 30, 2014

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.

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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell

July 28, 2010

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

My bookies today posted their odds for the 2010 Man Booker, and as I expected David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet at 9/2 has joined two-time winner Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America at 4-1 at the top of the list as near co-favorites to win this year’s prize. (Remember bookmaker odds are not an estimation of quality; rather they are a reflection of where the betting public is putting its money.) Mitchell’s novel received enthuiastic reviews when released in the UK earlier this year and an equally positive reception with its North American release a few weeks ago — no less a star than Dave Eggers enthused about it in the New York Times.

I am a serious David Mitchell fan and when 2010 dawned this book was at the top of my “looking forward to it” list. I have read all four of his previous works; Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten were exceptional; Number9dream and Black Swan Green well above the norm. While the latter has a fairly traditional structure, the first three mentioned established some Mitchell characteristics — multiple story lines, intricate plots and language and a rare ability to continuously engage the reader in a kaleidoscopic experience.

So why am I so disappointed by The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet? I started and abandoned it twice, believing that either too high expectations or the wrong reader attitude might be to blame. I persevered to the end the third time through and while it was a better experience, I still find the book wanting. I will try to explain why — at the very least, the review may provide some guidelines to potential readers on what to look out for.

First, a very brief outline of the plot. The Jacob De Zoet of the title is a Dutch clerk whom we meet in 1799 as the ship he is aboard approaches Dejima, an artificial, fan-shaped island off of Nagasaki, 200 paces long, 40 wide. It is basically a collection of warehouses and is the cloistered Japanese Empire’s sole port — once a year a ship from the Dutch East Indies Company arrives for a trading session of some weeks, when it departs a handful of Dutch are left behind to manage things and get ready for the next visit. Jacob has signed on for a five-year term, the only way he could persuade the father of Anna back home that he would have the means to be a worthy husband. He has another, far trickier assignment. As the assistant of the new Chief, Vorstenbosch, he is to rigorously examine the books of previous years to document the corruption the company is certain has been taking place.

Few Japanese, beyond the Empire representatives and members of the Interpreters’ Guild, are allowed on the island. Only one, Orito, is a woman. Her face badly scarred by a childhood burn, she is a practicing midwife who has saved the magistrate’s child in a difficult birth. As a reward, she is allowed to train with Dr. Marinus as his only female student — he also trains a handful of Japanese, looks after the Dutch, but mainly pursues his interest in botany.

Complications ensue — the book is 479 pages after all (Mitchell tends to write long books). Scores of other characters are introduced, new schemes of varying import are hatched regularly and there is a fair bit of violence, but all of those bigger picture stories are viewed through the lens of these two characters.

Which, for me, is the first and perhaps most serious of author Mitchell’s problems. He is an incredibly meticulous and detailed writer, who builds his story one intricately detailed block at a time, with immense amounts of necessary background — not unlike the Russians, say Dostoevsky, who take 300 pages to establish the elements of the story before they actually begin it. That trait, in fact, is one of the very real strengths of Cloud Atlas. But that novel has six different story lines, set in different eras spread across centuries, all in different places with different casts of characters — and it is a joy to hold all those elements together in your mind as the author gets ready to start. In this book, there are only two central stories and two lead characters, a clerk and a midwife, and that simply isn’t enough structure on which to impose Mitchell’s impressive mounds of detail.

A welter of voices, intricate prose and a cat’s cradle of narration, it turns out (at least for me), require an equally complex web of stories — and this novel simply doesn’t have that, which makes the reading all too often tedious and annoying, You know something big is eventually going to happen (it is no spoiler to say it does), but the process of getting there is wearisome.

That concern could be set aside if the prose style and language are so strong as to carry themselves (and those who like the book do salute the prose) but that sure didn’t work for me. Mitchell frequently sets his detail in dialogue, so consider this example from midway through the book:

“‘Master Ueda replied that the Koyamas were well aware of my origins as the daughter of a shrine but saw no objection. They want a daughter-in-law who is dutiful, modest, resourceful, and not a'”– Orioto’s voice is joined by sisters who lovingly recite the sobriquet — “‘prissy sherbet-guzzling miss who thinks “hard work” is a town in China. Lastly, my master reminded me that I am a Ueda by adoption, and why did I suppose the Uedas to be so very far below the Koyamas? Blushing, I apologized to my master for my thoughtless words.'”

“But Noriko-san didn’t mean that at all!” Hotaru protests.

Hatsune warms her hands at the fire. “He is curing her shyness, I believe.”

The blizzard of punctuation in that quote, incidentally, is another frequent effect, which I found jarring. When you are having trouble with prose, it is the little things like that that eventually really get to you. Here is another example from just two pages later:

“The story goes,” Yayoi says, curling Orito’s hair around her finger, “that when I was born with these” — Yayoi taps her pointed ears — “the Buddhist priest was called. His explanation was that a demon had crept into my mother’s womb and laid his egg there, like a cuckoo. Unless I was abandoned that very night, the priest warned, demons would come for their offspring and carve up the family as a celebratory feast. My father heard this with relief: peasants everywhere ‘winnow the seedlings’ to rid themselves of unwanted daughters. Our village even had a special place for it: a circle of pointed rocks, high above the tree line, up a dry streambed. In the seventh month, the cold could not kill me, but wild dogs, foraging bears, and hungry spirits were sure to do the job by morning. My father left me there and walked home without regret.”

(Potential spoiler coming up.) I went to the middle of the books for those quotes because it sets up my final grumble (for the review — I have others). In both those quotes, Orito and Yayoi are sharing their background — the two are effectively imprisoned at a “nunnery” in a shrine where they are “engifters” who are “gifted” by the masters and accolytes and the resulting offspring are taken from them. Remind you of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood? Or perhaps Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro? It certainly reminded me; both those authors did it better and I say that having liked neither book. Again, it may have been a case that my frustration with Mitchell’s book caused me to make exaggerated criticisms but every section of the book seemed to be derivative of something done better by someone else — and I got no sense that these were homages or references to those authors, because they just go on too long to be a nod of honor. Besides, Atwood and Ishiguro are still writing and not yet ready to be elevated to Patrick O’Brien-like imitation (yes, that is a hint to another derivative section).

Mitchell does eventually set the active part of the novel going for the last 100-150 pages and, when he is in a go-forward mood, he is quite good at action. Again, I am out of step with most of the people who like the book — they admit the ending is weak, I found it the best part of the book. Perhaps I was just relieved at approaching the finish, but when Mitchell did get into an active voice here, he reminded me why I liked his previous books. (For a recent, excellent discussion of how he makes all this style work successfully check out Hungry Like the Woolf’s review of Cloud Atlas here.)

End of KfC rant. Despite the positive critical reception for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, I should note that I am not the only dissenting voice. My fellow Shadow Giller juror, Trevor Berrett at themookseandthegripes had some similar concerns in his review although he does end up much more positive than I did. And a couple of readers whom I respect on the Man Booker debate site have also said they abandoned it. For a much more positive assessment (with a far more complete look at the plot than I have provided) and an interview with David Mitchell, check out John Self’s Asylum thoughts here.

I very much wanted to like this book and again note that others found much in it. Despite my respect for Mitchell, I honestly don’t think my problems with it are my fault. All of which probably makes it a certain 2010 Man Booker winner. Oh well.


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