Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: Random House
Publishing Date: 2015
Number of Pages: 624
Following a fight with her mother about her boyfriend, fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes slams the door on her family and her old life. But Holly is no typical teenage runaway: A sensitive child once contacted by voices she knew only as “the radio people,” Holly has caught the attention of a cabal of dangerous mystics – and their enemies. But her lost weekend is merely the prelude to a shocking disappearance that leaves her family scarred. This unsolved mystery will echo through every decade of Holly’s life, affecting all the people she loves – even the ones who are not yet born. A Cambridge scholar, an Iraq war reporter, a middle-aged writer exiled from the bestseller list – all have a part to play in this surreal, invisible war on the margins of our world.
David Mitchell is a genre bender, a literary free spirit who willfully glides over the fine lines that separate the distinct literary genres. His perversion for genre-bending was in full showcase in his magnus opus, Cloud Atlas, and also in The Bone Clocks, a book I purchased way back in 2015 out of whim. I was then piqued by Mitchell’s works because of Cloud Atlas’ inclusion in numerous must-read lists. I’ve since then read Cloud Atlas and in spite of its complexity and macabre plot, I was astonished at the sheer genius of the book.
The Bone Clocks gave me the same chills that I felt when I was reading Cloud Atlas. It is a complex narrative that has the same magnitude as Mitchell’s other work. It is the convergence of classical English literature and modernism which resulted inti a wonderful story about love, life and our future. It is visionary and futuristic in its scope yet classical in its approach.
The story is about Holly Sykes, who possesses a a special ability of being able to listen to voices who she referred to as “radio people.” These tendencies were eventually exorcised but it led to even more dire consequences when, as a prodigal teenager, she fled her suffocating suburban London life. Her younger brother, Jacko, went missing the same day Holly ran away. Holly is then sucked into a whirlpool of grotesque events that is bereft of any logic.
What made the book special is the story itself, a perfect marriage of the realistic and the supernatural. It is quirky and out-of-the-box, making it all the more interesting. The unique context goes beyond the limits of trite story-telling that most contemporary writers are bottled up in. On the surface, it is superficial story about a young teenager who has blossomed into a wise lady. But that is just a scratch on the surface because as you dig in deeper, the book’s supernatural theme pulls you into the thick of infinite action. It is a delightful break from the monotony one is caught up in.
The Bone Clocks is told in six parts, with each part narrated by six persons in their own perspectives. The first part was related by a teen-aged Holly herself while the last part was narrated by an older and far wiser Holly. The parts in between are narrated by four individuals who played significant roles in Holly’s life, from the time she was a broken-hearted teenager to the time she got caught in the middle of the war between the Anchorites and the Horologists.
The story spans a period of nearly six decades, from 1984 to 2043, although there are blind spots as the story transitioned from one part to another. This caused the book to hit plateaus as the story transitions from one part to another. However, it didn’t affect the entire story. Each of the six parts can be treated as individual stories, just like Cloud Atlas, but Mitchell did a wonderful job in knitting these individual parts into one harmonious narrative.
Each of the four narrators have different temperament and personality. They came from bleak backgrounds, harboring some negative energies with them. In spite of their brazen virtues, their varied personalities added a different flair to the story. However, when they got acquainted with Holly, there was a sudden shift in their disposition. Holly possesses a calming influence, affecting those who crowd her very small social circle. Holly also matured as the story went on, outgrowing her rebellious teenage years and growing up into a sapient grandmother.
There is an undeniable air of international flavor weaved into the book. Even though the primary characters are British, the story took place in nearly continent as the characters moved from UK to France, Australia, Russia, USA, Colombia, and even China. The Horologist and the Anchorites, owing to their preternatural abilities, also switched from one nationality to another. This interesting touch on ethnicity and nationalities made the story more riveting.
Outside the theme of the supernatural and fantasy, the story is a marriage of a myriad of themes, none the prevalent than the quest for immortality and reincarnation. Both are extensively portrayed in the book, giving it the flair of fantasy. Mitchell did not blur the lines between reality and fantasy, rather he established well-defined parameters to avoid literary conundrum. Politics, writing, mental health and suicide were also among the myriad of themes that were incorporated into the story. These various elements were skillfully sewn by Mitchell into one cohesive story.
Another merit of the book is Mitchell’s vivid portrayal of the different decades in which the story took place. Through words, the book painted the development and growth of the 1980s, 1990s and the 2000s. He followed suit with his futuristic vision until the 2040s which he portrayed as a pre-dystopian era. This vision is bleak and belied the subtlety of his message, that we should take care of our resources as early as now because in the future, everything will become scarce. It is an agitating oracle but something that is not farfetched and could actually turn into reality.
There is just something strangely beautiful about The Bone Clocks that kept me enamored in spite of its length and its complexity. The way it was written is nothing short of ingenious even though there are numerous transitions that the reader must bear. I have to commend Mitchell for doing a great job on working on the numerous facets of the book. The characters were also carefully developed, hence, a natural flow in the conversations which were rich in philosophy, wit, and humor.
However, as I reflect on the book and how I feel about it, I can’t help but feel strained. Its wide array of themes made it a challenge keeping up with all of them. I kind of agree with one comment I’ve read about the book – it ought to have been cut into two portions. I also get the feeling that the last part of the book is a disconnect to the entire story although it could have done well as a separate one. It was anticlimactic and negates the elation that have soared within me for the other parts of the book.
Overall, I have to hand it to David Mitchell for a well-written narrative that redefines the boundaries of the different genres as we know them. As always, he has taken his writing to a level that only he knows how to. The Bone Clocks, though less impressive as Cloud Atlas (I think nothing can surpass that epic of tale, yet), is a stormy tale that marries the supernatural with reality. It is a strangely appetizing novel filled with colorful characters and peculiar story lines that makes me look forward to Mitchell’s other works. Yes, they are bizarre but they make me dwell deeper into the heart of our reality.
Recommended for those who are looking for out-of-the box reads, those who are interested in magical realism, those who enjoy fantasy and magic, and those who like reading dystopian novels.
Not recommended for those who dislike books about immortality and magic, those who lack imagination, and those prefer concise stories.
About The Author
David Mitchell was born on January 12, 1969 in Southport, England. He obtained a degree in English and American Literature from the University of Kent.
In 1999, he published is first novel, Ghostwritten which set the tone for his succeeding works. This was succeeded by number9dream and Cloud Atlas, published in 2001 and 2004, respectively. Both were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Cloud Atlas was made into a film in 2012. Black Swan Green, his fourth novel was published in 2006. The next year, Mitchell was listed among Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. His fifth novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was published in 2010 and followed by The Bone Clocks in 2014. The latter was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His seventh novel, Slade House, was published in 2015. His 90-page novella, From Me Flows What You Call Time will be published in 2114 although it was completed in 2016. He has also written as slew of short stories over the years.
Prior to writing novels, Mitchell lived in Hiroshima Japan, teaching English to technical students. This is in spite of his speech disorder of stammering. Mitchell currently lives in Ardfield, Clonakity in County Cork, Ireland, with his wife, Keiko Yoshida and their two children.