Reviewing a novel by David Mitchell is always a monumental task due to the fact that his works are monumental feats in themselves. When you read a Mitchell novel, you are reading multiple stories that often touch on multiple dramas stretching from the past into the distant future. Yet Mitchell, being a master craftsman, connects these various strands together into a beautiful and well-woven tapestry. The reading of one of his epic works is an event that will stay with you long after you close the book. These words perfectly describe my reading experience of Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, a book that I thoroughly enjoyed from beginning to end. It would take an artist of lesser caliber multiple works to achieve what Mitchell has managed in just one novel.
Admittedly, my expectations were quite high as Cloud Atlas is one of my favorite books of all time. Thankfully, this one didn’t disappoint. Sharing a similar style, The Bone Clocks is divided into six individual novellas that work to tell one central story. Although each section focuses on a different narrator, the character of Holly Sykes is the core of this novel. We first meet Holly as a teenager, and each section advances forward every few years until we see Holly as an old woman. Spanning from the years 1984 until 2043, we learn that Holly has unknowingly been the centerpiece of a mysterious war between two opposing groups of immortals. The Horologists are a benevolent group that reincarnate after a body has passed on, while the Anchorites are a faction that derive their long life from draining the souls of others who possess psychic gifts. Both groups possess extraordinary abilities, but their story isn’t the core of this novel. Throughout the majority of the book, we receive clues as to what is happening but are not provided answers until nearly the end. The real heart of The Bone Clocks is Holly as well as the people she encounters throughout her life. While Mitchell has written a fantasy of epic proportions with huge life-altering stakes at play, most of the war between these immortals occurs off scene. Keeping this struggle on the fringes of the novel allows Mitchell to do what he does best, creating believable moments in human lives.
The greatest strength of this books lies in the characters themselves. Writing as several different characters in the first-person is risky as they could all end up sounding alike. In this case, Mitchell is able to create realistic and different narrative voices. In particular, I love how much Holly has changed from her time as a clueless runaway teenager to the learned woman she becomes. Throughout the novel, we not only hear Holly’s voice but also how others see her. Not all the characters are likable. In fact, some are downright terrible people. Mitchell’s strong writing keeps us entertained enough to stay with these disreputable characters who are connected through the central character of Holly Sykes. Whether it’s a despicable cad who falls in love with her, a war reporter who is torn between duty and family, or an aging author who harbors a deep jealousy, we easily become just as interested in their personal struggles as we do the grander fantasy story.
Through beautiful language, Mitchell does a fantastic job of capturing these characters and their various opinions, as well as raising issues that can resonate with the reader. I completely fell in love with this speech from Holly early in the novel, talking to a friend about Heaven:
“What if … what if Heaven is real, but only in moments? Like a glass of water on a hot day when you’re dying of thirst, or when someone’s nice to you for no reason, or …’ Mam’s pancakes with Toblerone sauce; Dad dashing up from the bar just to tell me, ‘Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite’; or Jacko and Sharon singing ‘For She’s A Squishy Marshmallow’ instead of ‘For She’s A Jolly Good Fellow’ every single birthday and wetting themselves even though it’s not at all funny; and Brendan giving his old record player to me instead of one of his mates. ‘S’pose Heaven’s not like a painting that’s just hanging there for ever, but more like … Like the best song anyone ever wrote, but a song you only catch in snatches, while you’re alive, from passing cars, or … upstairs windows when you’re lost …”
It is impressive how Mitchell is able to take what appears to be an insignificant moment in one section and show just how important it is in another. He does a nice job foreshadowing just what is going on with Holly and the strange voices and people she encounters at specific points in her life. The suspense continues throughout most of the novel before breaking out with a chapter completely dedicated to the war between the two immortal factions. This creates a dramatic and exciting last third of the novel as all the mysterious events from the previous chapters come together beautifully. Unfortunately, this means there are several pages of exposition that need to be read carefully to grasp it all. I also appreciated the nods to Mitchell’s other novels as they all appear to set in the same universe. Be warned that The Bone Clocks is not a novel you can just breeze through in a couple of days. There are just too many details to remember. If you aren’t paying attention, you will get completely lost within its labyrinth structure.
The greatest compliment I can give in a review is that sometimes a book stays with me long after I finish reading it. The Bone Clocks will truly be one of those books. Mitchell accomplished something truly wondrous by creating a fantasy epic that spans centuries while still keeping the narrative tightly focused on real characters living everyday moments. My biggest regret is that I let this one sit on the shelf for so long. I plan on rereading Slade House again since I think I will appreciate it more now that I’ve read this one. Mitchell has constructed an extraordinary maze of a book that will only yield answers to the diligent reader. The Bone Clocks is truly a worthy successor to the groundbreaking Cloud Atlas.
“We live on, as long as there are people to live on in.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.