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The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell Review

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<i>The Bone Clocks</i> by David Mitchell Review

David Mitchell has built himself a reputation for masterpieces.

At once the student of time who wrote the swirling classic Cloud Atlas and the adept humanist behind the bildungsroman he called Black Swan Green, Mitchell’s intricately woven plots have made his name synonymous with the modern novel and earned him a John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and a spot on the TIME 100 list in 2007. With these accolades under his belt, Mitchell sets off to combine talents for metaphysics and humanism in his latest novel, long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize. The resulting romp through time and space ambitiously adds to Mitchell’s oeuvre.

The book begins by painting an almost Murakamian portrait of protagonist Holly Sykes against a backdrop of otherworldly chaos. The narrator changes with every chapter to come, but our introduction to Holly comes from the 15-year-old basket case herself. Holly relates the story of her time as a teenage runaway and, hardly a dozen pages in, first props appear for the supernatural epic destined to detonate later in the story.

The novel skips across the years, each new decade offering a different man in Holly’s life the chance to tell his story. Cambridge student Hugo Lamb relates a tale of financial cunning and collegiate fun that ends in Switzerland after a passionate one-night stand with Holly. In a section reminiscent of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Holly’s partner Ed Brubeck recalls his traumatic experiences as a war reporter in Iraq. Washed-up novelist Crispin Hershey overcomes his sardonic jealousy to become an endearing character and a good friend to Holly. Each chapter provides a satisfying story on its own, but when pieced together, these varied vistas paint the life of Holly Sykes with a depth no single perspective could create. She plays both major and minor roles, both friend and rival. In the end, she becomes the most three-dimensional character in any of Mitchell’s novels.

Underneath each of these stories runs a conspicuous stream of oddities: precognitive episodes in which Holly steals a glimpse of the future; mysterious “daymares” lived in terror and then redacted from memory; a Miss Constantin, who continues to reappear but never ages. Supernatural events pop up time and again without explanation—all orbiting mysteriously around Holly Sykes like doomed satellites waiting to crash through the atmosphere.

Crash they do. In the book’s longest section, we enter the wise mind of a character named Marinus and her world of Horology. Holly takes a temporary back seat as supernatural undercurrents breach the surface and flood pages with a war between two factions of immortals. The Horologists, whose souls passively rebirth into a new body after death, face off against the evil Anchorites, whose quarterly human sacrifices grant them eternal youth. A page-turner erupts when Harry Potter-esque psychoduels rage between the forces of good and evil.

By introducing these two flavors of immortality, Mitchell brings to the forefront the novel’s persistent conflict: Aging vs. Tradition. Characters simultaneously fear the ravages of time, and wonder over threads of art and family that weave through history to unite us with the ancients.

On his London commute, Hugo Lamb typifies this conflict, quoting Machiavelli as his age-old inspiration before mourning his own inevitable deterioration:

Commuters sway like sides of beef and slump like corpses: red-eyed office slaves plugged into Discmans; their podgier selves in their forties buried in the Evening Standard; and nearly retired versions gazing over West London wondering where their lives went. I am the System you have to beat, clacks the carriage. I am the System you have to beat. But what does “beating the system” mean?

Through the Horologists, Mitchell suggests comfort can be found in legacy. Or, in the words of Holly Sykes, “We live on, as long as there are people to live on in.”

The war between immortals gives us the book’s climax. Mysteries yield to answers in pages filled with espionage, explosions, and excitement, but like a puzzle piece bent and squeezed into place, this section does not quite fit the rest of the novel. Holly shifts from being the centerpiece of the chaos to cowering in the corner as Horologist and Anchorite lock horns around her.

On top of this, Marinus’ explanation of Horology displays a rather heavy-handed effort to tie in with Mitchell’s previous books. These crossovers must be expected in any David Mitchell novel, but in The Bone Clocks, they appear with a regularity that reveals the author’s guilty pleasure at sowing such flickers of recognition. Although mostly harmless (naming a nano-explosive “N9D” after number9dream), these allusions chip away at the Fourth Wall with a frequency that makes The Bone Clocks itself a less immersive experience.

In the aftermath of the psychosoteric war, Mitchell returns to the mind of Holly Sykes—now in her senior years—to paint a moving farewell to a well crafted character. Holly has survived to witness firsthand Mitchell’s dreary vision of the year 2043 where energy shortages, a broken Internet and the bitter fruits of climate change bring civilization crashing down. This ominous landscape provides the perfect contrast for a loving goodbye that completes the portrait of Mitchell’s most memorable character to date.

The latest venture into the David Mitchell universe hits all the sweet spots readers have come to expect. Motifs that juggle time and the soul, tie-ins with his previous novels and a dash of the fantastic fill these pages. Once again, Mitchell showcases his talent for seeing the temporal landscape from above—a skill that allows him to trace the tributary of each story from its source to the place where it joins the river of this novel … and all his novels.


Evan MacQuarrie is a graduate student in Ithaca, NY.

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