BOOK REVIEW: David Mitchell’s “The Bone Clocks”
Were you to ask me for a brief synopsis of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet or Cloud Atlas, I’d be able to give you a fairly succinct summary but only after a good bit of careful thought. Mitchell’s novels are big. They are grand in scope, thematically large, and fairly bursting with rich characters. He’s shown unrivaled talent when it comes to making the most grandiose and impossible-to-tell stories palatable and engaging. With his newest novel, The Bone Clocks, he shows readers that he is the veritable king of weaving an Odyssean tapestry through dozens of characters and hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years. Yet, he seems to have stopped just short of the finish line in The Bone Clocks.
What makes The Bone Clocks so perfectly Mitchell-esque, aside from its winding plot, is its remarkable ability to make you laugh, cry, and become angry in less than a hundred pages or so. And you will experience this range of emotions multiple times while reading this 624-page tome. Moreover, Mitchell shows readers that, more than being a gifted story-teller, he’s got an uncanny sense of humor about many things, most of all himself. In fact, Mitchell toys with metafictivness to the point that the book nearly becomes metafiction at a few junctures. One of his point-of-view characters, Crispin Hershey, is a middle-aged author still riding the wave of early successes while his newer work underachieves financially and critically. At one point, in a discussion with his publisher, Hershey is told that one cannot write a book that is half-fantasy anymore than one can be half-pregnant.
Mitchell clearly balks at such a notion – Hershey’s attitude towards critics is not especially warm – because The Bone Clocks is a very healthy blend of both the real and the surreal. Rich and flawed characters dot the vast landscape of what is, ultimately, a fantasy novel.
The reader is introduced to Holly Sykes, the second-oldest of four children, as a teenager living atop her parents’ pub in Gravesend, England in the mid-1980s. After a heated argument with her mother, Holly runs away from home, seeking asylum with her boyfriend whom she quickly discovers has been two-timing her with her best friend. Implaccable and willful, Holly refuses to let this rupture her plans of running off and journeys deep into the English countryside where she encounters an old woman, fishing off a pier, who asks Holly for a seemingly nonsensical favor. The favor she asks Holly has far-reaching ramifications that will color the rest of Holly’s life.
Early, the reader learns that Holly is a conduit for psychic phenomenon. As a young child, she heard voices she refers to as “the Radio People” which she is wholly unable to explain. Further confounding her are the nightly visits she receives from a mysterious and ghostly woman known only to her as “Miss Constantin.” Holly eventually grows comforted by Miss Constantin’s presence and begins a sort of friendship, often confiding in her mysterious visitor. When Holly learns that a girl who was bullying her was severely injured, seemingly by the unseen influence of Miss Constantin, she panics and reveals the existence of the Radio People to her parents. She’s taken to see a Dr. Marinus (readers of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet will recognize the name) and the Radio People go quiet. The visits from Miss Constatin cease. Combined with the promise she later makes to a seemingly batty old fisherwoman, Holly has fully and unwittingly embroiled herself in an ancient battle between warring clans of immortals: the Buddhist-like Horologists, capable of self-aware reincarnation and the sinister Anchorites who prolong their youth via the decanting of innocent souls.
After a bizarre and bloody incident that is mysteriously redacted from Holly’s memory, she learns that her youngest brother, Jacko, has gone missing and she returns home to her family. Through the introduction and subseqent narration of other point of view characters, we follow Holly’s adult life almost vicariously. Hugo Lamb, a sociapathic charmer not unlike Dorian Gray, encounters Holly in the Swiss Alps while on a ski vacation in the early nineties where she is a seasonal worker at a bar. After Hugo Lamb’s mysterious exit, the reader is introduced to Ed Bruebeck, a war correspondent and childhood friend of Holly’s whom the reader first encounters during Holly’s “lost weekend,” the weekend she ran away from home, the same weekend of her brother’s disappearence. It is 2004, Ed is romatically involved with Holly and they have a young child, Aoife, together. Holly’s mild psychic abilities reveal themselves again while she and Ed are attending her younger sister’s wedding. In 2015, the reader meets the aforementioned Crispin Hershey. Over the next five years, we follow the sullen Hershey as he encounters Holly, now a best-selling author of a book entitled “The Radio People” at various book conventions around the world. The two become friends and, like all of those in Holly’s life, Hershey becomes a party to the bizarre psychic phenomena surrounding her. The novel jumps ahead yet again to the year 2025 and is at that point narrated by a Canadian psychiatrist who, despite outward appearances, is a character that readers will be familiar with. Much of this section, which more heavily involves Holly than the previous two, is spent explaining the mysterious connections between the novel’s events.
It is this section, entitled “A Horologist’s Labyrinth,” that is the crowning achievement of Mitchell’s novel. The story loses much of its realism as the narrative veers fully into the fantastical, albeit tethered by Mitchell’s painfully researched historical accuracy, and we are given an unforgettable climax, complete with dueling wizards in a mysterious netherworld. This section is an unmitigated success as nervous readers might wonder, periodically, whether Mitchell will be able to bring together all the loose ends he’s left undone. He does so in champion form, deftly weaving in some of the more banal-seeming details to form a full tapestry of rich story. While all the relevant plot points are solved for casual readers, there are previously-referenced elements which Mitchell addresses for even the most scrutinizing readers. When the section ends, one anxiously turns the page to sigh in relief for the inevitable wrap-up.
And here, with less than a hundred pages to go, Mitchell let’s us down slightly. The final section returns to Holly’s point of view as she lives an almost fuedal lifestyle in the West of Ireland in the year 2040 as the world descends into chaos. The climate is collapsing, the power grids have failed, oil has nearly run out, and the narrative has suddenly become a post-apocalyptic fabel which, sadly, has very little to do with the previous 500-plus pages. Aside from the relationship between Holly and another character, there is very little relationship to the masterwork Mitchell so deftly created. His writing, his ideas, and his character are still top-rate and one almost believes that this final section might make for a wonderful novel of it’s own, it’s that separate. Final resolution comes only in the last twenty pages and, sadly, it comes in the disappointing form of deus ex machina.
What is so utterly frustrating about this hasty wrap-up, is one of Mitchell’s characters even remarks upon the irony of the situation and, frankly, it almost seems a bit like a thumb of the nose to readers who have hung on to Mitchell’s every word throughout the lengthy novel. Perhaps this was not the author’s intention at all, but it feel very much like a: “here’s what’ll happen if you keep filling your car up with gas, sod-off if you don’t like it. Oh, by the way, here’s your bloody resolution.” In fairness, ending a novel like The Bone Clocks in satisfactory fashion is a very difficult undertaking.
The novel is vast, it is dense, and simply telling the story is the type of work only David Mitchell can accomplish. Critics have said that Mitchell’s work is an uber-novel at sorts and, considering this, it’s possible that this final section is an allusion of things to come from the author yet it is a thorough and utter letdown because so much is left unanswered, completely contrary to the painstaking care with which he addressed so many other details. The ending feels rushed and uninspired and it feels like a house that is left incomplete for want of a roof.
Overall, the novel is successful despite such an abrupt ending. Mitchell successfully does what Crispin Hershey is told was impossible: he writes a half-fantasy novel though, considering the revelations, one can extrapolate that perhaps nothing is entirely devoid of fantasy. Readers will look back on the complete work and consider that, maybe, all of this was the work of something beyond rational and scientific reason. Theology is cleverly dealt with, dismissed though not entirely. Nominally and explicitly, readers are told that none of what you see is the work of a supreme being yet even the all-knowing immortals are admittedly ignorant concerning the workings of it all, making the book wholly agnostic rather than combatively atheist.
When readers ask: who are these immortals, really? we have technically have an answer but don’t truly have the full answer because they do not possess the full answer. As was the case with Cloud Atlas, Mitchell explores the transitive properties of the soul and The Bone Clocks is his peek behind the curtain, answering why to some degree and how to a lesser degree. While the novel’s conclusion does not leave the reader with many questions, it leaves him or her with a few and not the type of questions one should be left with. The ponderous, deep-stream questions are presented for the asking but he’s left readers twitching, hoping for a more fully realized conclusion than the one Mitchell has dropped like a microphone.
Latest posts by Matt Forster (see all)
- Film Review: Bone Tomahawk - October 30, 2015
- Playlist from Hell: Seven songs from the American Horror Story soundtrack - October 23, 2015
- To sell out or not to sell out: Good, bad and really ugly (country/folk edition) - October 16, 2015
- The five most underappreciated TV shows of the last 10 years - October 9, 2015
- Music Review: Ryan Adams’ “1989” - September 25, 2015