A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
David Mitchell plants (or ‘seeds’ in the terminology of the plot) two pre-emptive statements in The Bone Clocks to keep grumpy critics off his back. The first is in the story of Crispin Hershey, an English literary figure whose first novel perpetually overshadows everything he subsequently tries to write. The point is made: don’t judge an author by his or her most famous work. At the moment this is Cloud Atlas, since it’s been filmed. The Bone Clocks is very like Cloud Atlas, in its structure, narrative tone and outrageously vast cast of characters and worlds, but it is also different, maybe even better. I certainly liked it a great deal more.
The second seed is in the three-page discussion Afterword in The Bone Clocks on why Mitchell reuses his characters. As he says, authors have been doing this since Homer, but it’s interesting that he wants to explain why he does it here. Some readers will have spotted some reappearing characters, but probably not all. I found two: Lucas Marinus from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (which I reviewed here), and Mo Muntervary of Ghostwritten. The vile Rupert of Cloud Atlas is not present, but he has a spiritual twin, Hugo Lamb, who apparently had a bit-part in Black Swan Green (reviewed by Nikki here). So what of it?
The Bone Clocks is told in six segments of story. Its success depends on the reader being swept away by the stories of individual characters. When these include a known character, we know what they’re going to be like without any explanation, they’re a short-cut to reassurance. For example, Mo Muntervary represents integrity and science. She appears in the last segment, when the teenage runaway Holly Sykes of the first segment is an old woman. We met Holly first in 1984, when she is furiously, miserably distraught by how her mum and her slimebag boyfriend Vinny have treated her, and then (rather more seriously) by the horrific triple murder she inadvertently witnesses. She doesn’t witness it for long, because Esther Little redacts Holly’s memory and disappears from her life, leaving her to find a brief strawberry-picking job before Ed Brubeck arrives on his bike to get her home quick: her baby brother has gone missing.
Phew: that was intense. In the next segment, we’re in Cambridge, five years later, inside Hugo Lamb’s head, just as he is given an unexpected preliminary job interview with a view to joining a group of time-travelling, soul-devouring psychosoterics called Anchorites or Carnivores. He doesn’t remember this, obviously, but he’s annoyed that he’s lost two hours of his evening and can’t remember how. The rest of his evening and the coming days of Hugo’s life show the reader what an amoral, cold liar and swindler he is. No-one is safe, probably not even his own family, but he is willing to warn his friends for their own good when they’re behaving stupidly. When violent Swiss pimps show up at Chetwynd-Pitt’s ski chalet to claim the earnings the so-called ‘backing singers’ have amassed overnight from Hugo’s three upper-class idiot friends, who got angry with Hugo when he said they were prostitutes, Hugo is dropping out of the attic window into the snow, just as a blizzard strikes. He’s already pursuing Holly, now an impressively efficient bar manager in the ski resort, so she shelters him from the snow, and to his utter, utter amazement, he falls in love. This is important.
Wind forward thirteen years. Dependable Ed Brubeck is a prize-winning war reporter, father of Aoife (aged five), and is attending Sharon’s wedding with Holly, Aoife’s mother and Sharon’s sister. Ed had thought he was giving up on foreign war zone assignments for good, but his paper has miraculously set up an interview in Yemen with a very hard-to-get source, and he has to decide if he’s going back in, or if he’s setting up home properly with Holly before she kicks him out. The wedding is full of relatives he doesn’t feel connected to, but he proves his worth as Aoife’s father when she goes missing, by working out what Holly is saying when she collapses into a precognitive trance.
The narrator of the next segment, Crispin Hershey the exasperatingly arrogant author, keeps running into Holly, now a best-selling author, and, on a trip to Western Australia, he gets her and Aoife off Rottnest Island when one of Holly’s precog trances hits her head too hard on the wall. Crispin’s life is a tangled mess, ruined by his own cowardice and fear, overshadowed by the one truly vile thing he has done to someone else. He keeps meeting a strange shaven-headed woman who insists that he reads her poems and her novel. No matter where he goes in the world on book tours and literary festivals, his inadequacy catches up with him, and he never remembers the warnings he gets.
Yes, the sf elements in this novel are slowly becoming more apparent. Weird stuff keeps happening, and it’s not just in Holly’s head or in Hugo’s astonished altered life. Marinus appears in the fifth segment, in 2025, embodied as a black woman and a professor of psychiatry, leading the Horologists in their war against the Anchorites. This segment is a chair-gripping, high-speed thriller dénouement, not one to begin reading in bed at night because you will not be able to put it down.
The Horologists are inadvertent recurring souls, persons who live forever by being persistently reborn into new bodies 49 days after their former body’s death. The Anchorites are deliberately recurring, since they prey on humans to stay alive and ageless. The Horologists can’t do anything about their own lonely condition, but they are fighting to stop the Anchorites feeding off and murdering the innocent Temporals, folk like you and me. They use mind power – psychovoltaics, psychofernos, psychowhatnot, Mitchell’s variants on the traditional sf elements of telepathy, teleportation and mind-zapping. This is the core of the plot. Mitchell wraps it up in a thriller of connected life stories and clues left over sixty years by the oldest Horologist, Esther Little. His inventiveness in revealing these seeded clues in the life stories is pure delight, but none of this would be any good at all if it were not for Mitchell’s compelling ability to suck the reader in and hold them gripped by the story until it ends. He makes you think and care, and read on despite the horrible feeling that something awful will happen, any time, oh no thank goodness it didn’t, not this time. He writes roller-coasters for the emotions, in a good way, because the ride has purpose: we care that the characters care about each other and that they act accordingly to move the plot effortlessly along.
The novel’s last segment is a coda, set in the aftermath of Marinus’s very rocky psychosoterical ride, that takes place in 2043, when Holly is surviving in her west of Ireland cottage with her grandchildren and neighbour Mo. Fuel and supplies are running out, nuclear contamination is on its way from the west of England’s nuclear accident, the Chinese are pulling out of Ireland’s shaky agriculture, and the militias and religious nutcases are beginning to proliferate. It is daunting, especially when Holly realises that no more Chinese supply ships means no more medical supplies, and no more insulin for a diabetic. We have also not heard the last of the Horologists, who keep an eye on Holly, still special, and still important.
It’s hard to say if this novel is better than Mitchell’s earlier works, or is more of the same, or is on a different trajectory. He’s certainly not moved away from the now-familiar segmented structure, shared with Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten. The segments connect up in intricate ways with each other, but in a different way than in the earlier two novels (I haven’t read Number9dream or Black Swan Green). There isn’t a tricksy symmetry structure as in Cloud Atlas, or a cold-warm-cold on-off feeling about the characters popping up in a circular route as in Ghostwritten. The Bone Clocks surges forwards to a climax and a gentle, bracing ending, and everyone in it is needed, not wasted, reused and reappearing. Mitchell says that ‘each of my novels is a single chapter in a larger volume that I’ll keep working on till I die’. I’m very happy that he leaps across genres to do this, and I hope very much that booksellers with gumption will continue to house The Bone Clocks in mainstream fiction as well as in the sf ghetto in the back of the shop. All tastes are welcome, all possibilities are open.
David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks (2014), ISBN 978-0-340-92162-3, £7.99
Kate blogs about sf and many other books with wow factor, on katemacdonald.net.