I’m generally a fan of David Mitchell – there are links to other reviews of his books below. He’s a writer of talent and imagination who can entertain with complex plots, and at the same time create interesting characters in settings that range through space and time.
The Bone Clocks is his latest – apart from a short novel published as a series of tweets:
The Bone Clocks is the story of Holly Sykes, from runaway teenager to aged grandparent. It begins in 1984, in Gravesend, Kent, and ends in 2045 on the coast of Ireland near Cork. In between the setting moves from Cambridge to the Swiss Alps, to Iraq, South America, Australia, New York.
The book consists of six separate sections, each told in the first person by a different character, each character linked to each other in some way, and linked to Holly Sykes and the experiences she has in the opening part. Holly becomes a bargirl in the Swiss alps, and the second section is seen from the point of view of a lover there, a one night stand. In the third, describing her marriage to a war photographer, the setting switches between Brighton and Iraq. Later other characters who we have met already return as the next first person narrator, or become involved in some other way in her life story.
David Mitchell has an incredible facility for getting into the minds of his characters, for seeing things from their point of view, and evoking a real sense of space and time. The detail of his imagination is amazing, and each separate story would probably stand as a novel or novella in its own right. I thought the best sections here were earlier in the book – Holly as a teenager, her husband the war photographer, the Cambridge student she sleeps with in her ski flat. I found these to be all very sympathetic and well realised characters: the Cambridge student really is a bit of a villain, but in the end – well nearly – he turned up trumps – got himself a heart maybe.
Later the characters themselves were a little less sympathetic. The degenerate and failing novelist travelling the world to literary fairs and festivals I didn’t like – but I suppose that’s like saying you don’t like Emma the novel because Emma the woman’s a snob!! The character was certainly unusual, and well described.
Also later the story does take some strange twists. I know it’s fashionable these days and quite typical of Mitchell, but this is a long way from the literary puritanism that seemed to be fashionable a few years ago:
Suffice it to say that the whole plot hangs together because, throughout, Hollie is the victim of some sort of fantastic sequence of events: fantastic as in Fantasy, the genre. It is these events that knit the novel together in the rather long fifth section, and on into the last. In the past I’ve criticised Mitchell’s work for lacking a coherent plot or theme – for being just a series of semi-connected sections. Here there are clear plot and character connections in abundance. It’s just that they are really very fanciful. The novel mixes first person realism, with a focus on the daily lives of ordinary people, and fantasy of the most extreme kind. It’s very odd, and if you don’t like fantasy steer clear.
The last section too drifts into a dystopian future in which Chinese ships abandon a flooded Ireland to its last times. These two threads of future disaster – global warming and Chinese dominance – are too obvious really, too current, and so the end was a bit of an anti-climax. I don’t think Mitchell imagines the future as well as he evokes his or our past and present – but I suppose that’s to be expected as he’s experienced one and not the other.