Fiction Reviews

The Bone Clocks

(2014) David Mitchell, Sceptre, £7.99, pbk, 620pp, ISBN 978-340-92162-3


This David Mitchell is not to be confused with the other David Mitchell, husband of Victoria Coren, star of Peep Show and TV and radio panel games, and columnist for The Observer, in fact, his columns and articles and musings are often collected in book form so I do wonder if someone gets disappointed when they are given a David Mitchell book and receive something humorous instead of something fantastic and vice-versa.

Fantastic? Well, yes, well evidenced by the fact that The Bone Clocks did not win the Booker Prize but did walk away with the World Fantasy Award for 'Best Novel' this year, beating the likes of Jo Walton, and Jeff VanderMeer and his Southern Reach trilogy. The fantastic, or speculative have not always been to the fore in Mitchell’s work, except for obviously the Cloud Atlas (the film of which won the Siodmak Prize and SF2 Concatenation cited that as one of the best films of 2013) although this year has seen the publication of the ghostly Slade House inspired by some of his Tweets and either pretty brilliant, or pretty average, depending on what review you read.

But you could be forgiven for not thinking that The Bone Clocks is anything out of the ordinary given that it is told in six fairly chunky parts, revolving around the life of Holly Sykes, some of them told from Holly’s viewpoint, and one of the strengths of the novel is the voice that Mitchell nails the voice in each section, starting with Holly as a teenager running away from home. We are in the 1980s – 1984, when else would we start? In time for 'A Hot Spell', and Holly has fallen out with her parents and her boyfriend and decides to hit the road where she meets an old woman called Esther Little who seems to know Holly and what her future might hold. Perhaps she has visions too, because Holly admits that she has, and hears voices from 'the Radio People' as she calls them. Soon she gets a job picking fruit at a farm until an old school friend turns up and tells her brother has gone missing.

Over ninety pages later we are in 1991 and a section entitled 'Myrrh is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume' in the company of serial seducer, Hugo Lamb, a Cambridge undergraduate who is in love with Holly and among his circle of friends is the critic Richard Cheeseman who is reviewing a novel by Crispin Hershey, a literacy force who can do no wrong, or can he? A hundred pages and thirteen years pass and we are in 2004 for 'The Wedding Bash' and Holly is married to Ed Brubeck who cannot seem to get over the horrors he has witnessed in Iraq. Crispin Hershey reappears in 2015 because we are in 'Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet' and Holly is a successful writer, thanks to her book 'The Radio People', and the two of them are friends, while Hershey’s foe is the influential Cheeseman who is highly critical (and that is putting it mildly) of Hershey’s most recent novel.

And so what, you might say? Well written, obviously, and very satirical about the literacy world, thinly disguised famous writers, and the endless book festival circuit, and while the odd character crops up and there is the odd event hinting to another reality behind our own, it’s left to the fifth section called 'An Horologist’s Labyrinth' set in American in 2025 for Mitchell to reveal that ancients walk among us. Two tribes of 'atemporals' as they are known. One called the 'Horologists' who live on through reincarnation, while the 'Anchorites' ritually kill children to prolong their lives which certainly made me think of the steam vampires or the True Knot from Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep his sequel to The Shining. Humanity are the 'bone clocks' of the title. We live, we die. Finally, in the last section, we are back with Holly as an old woman, for 'Sheep’s Head' in 2043 as battens down the hatches as the world turns sour all around her.

Highly praised, short-listed for awards, and winning some, The Bone Clocks is a novel you will probably love, or hate, or be nonplussed by. It is Mitchell as master of all he surveys, bringing in the odd character from previous books, and writer as god with all the excesses that implies. But it is all part of his master plan, his work to be judged in its entirety, his novels only part of the vast canvas he is working on. Read it, and weep.

Ian Hunter

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