Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks / David Mitchell
Toronto: Knopf Canada, c2014.
640 p.

This is the first Mitchell I've read. I enjoyed it during the process of reading, but on reflection, I keep thinking of things that irritate me in retrospect. So I'd give it a well-worth-reading-but-not-a-must-read rating. There have been quite a few reviews posted online already, in every single media presence in New York, apparently -- I've seen the New York Times, the New Yorker, the NY Review of Books, so far. If you want lengthy analysis just try those. My thoughts are a bit more personal.

If you've read Mitchell before, or even watched the movie of Cloud Atlas, you will be familiar with his default style. Many characters telling distinct narratives which intertwine as you read each section. Sometimes this kind of structure really works well, but here I found that it was a bit jarring.

The book follows Holly Sykes from 1984 to 2048. By that I mean she is a character in each section, the linking one. The first section is told from her viewpoint, at age 15, when she gets into an argument with her mother and runs away. Strange things begin happening very quickly, tied to Holly's experience of hearing voices, which she calls The Radio People. This introduces the other main element of the plot, that of warring factions of an elite secret group known as Horologists with their enemies, the Anchorites, a group using dark magic to achieve the form of immortality with which the Horologists are naturally gifted.

Each section takes the action further, with more information about the Horologists weaving into each bit, until the final showdown in section 5. Which is then followed by section 6, Holly in her 80's living in an apocalyptic Ireland with civil society effectively dismantled. This seemed like a completely unnecessary and irrelevant storyline, tacked on to the end, perhaps to finish off Holly's story, or to make this book into the huge chunkster than Mitchell is known for and people seem to love to buy.

Anyhow, I don't mean to sound cynical. I did enjoy this while reading it, mostly. The eruptions of graphic video game style violence were things I skimmed over quickly, and found excessive, particularly in the very beginning and end parts. And the tone of the various sections, upon reflection, has not jelled into a whole, for me. It's particularly the bits told from the male perspectives that I felt were plucked from other books, not really this one.

The section told from the perspective of Hugo Lamb, a sociopathic British college boy felt a bit too "laddish" for me; Hugo was a darker, crueller version of Edward Docx's Jasper of The Calligrapher -- a self-centred, immature man focused on gratifying his own needs. Another section, the long and self-referential tale of a writer who becomes fixated on punishing a reviewer who has panned his book, was a bit much. Interesting in parts, I just felt like the ending of this section didn't make sense or have any meaning for the rest of the story. And the section with Ed, Holly's husband, talking about his experiences as a war reporter, just seemed to jar in its extreme reality with the 'supernatural' elements of the premise of the book. If we are expected to suspend disbelief long enough to buy into the idea of a cabal of supremely gifted, nearly immortal figures who twist the action of the world, it is very difficult to also be thrown back into a violent realistic portrayal of a situation that is actually happening due to human idiocy and has always happened, with a sense of its inevitable losses and our inability to fix it -- war in Syria and Gaza and all of those places that we are living with now.

Anyhow -- the idea of the Horologists and Holly's involvement was well formed. The complexity of this creation was fascinating, and quite entertaining. But mixing this all up into a dog's breakfast of style, tone, and character just didn't work for me.

What I did like about it was the character of Holly, and her relationships with her family. I also found the Horologists fun, and the use of a paranormal maze as a escape route was quite brilliant -- and represented so effectively in the beautiful cover of this book. I also found the phrase "bone clocks" evocative, a great description of the frail mortality of us all, the mortality that both of the paranormal organizations are mostly exempt from.

 If you already like David Mitchell, or you've read and enjoyed this kind of collage-like storytelling elsewhere, then you will likely really enjoy this one too. I read it and liked it, in the way that you like eating chocolate chip cookies for breakfast sometimes, but would never say that you'd just had the best meal ever. Recommended as an enjoyable romp for a relaxing weekend or a summer's lazy day indulgence.

Further Reading:

If you're looking for another super-long tale of mysterious shadowy characters, writers and multiple converging storylines, try Murakami's IQ84.

Max Barry's Lexicon tells another story of a mysterious yet powerful organization that controls humanity through the persuasive power of magic words, but which is in the process of infighting, which results in numerous violent episodes. Similar tones, and a similarity in the confusion of timelines.


  1. I've not yet read anything by David Mitchell, although I bought Cloud Atlas years before it was made into film. I'm not sure I'm up for such a ride right now, needing something peaceful as I have such a hectic start of the school year getting my classroom up and running. But, often I do like chocolate chip cookies for breakfast. Excellent analogy!

    1. Read this for hectic adventure, not for peace of mind ;) Oatmeal it is not!

  2. I really liked Cloud Atlas but haven't read anything else. I know the book has been getting lots of buzz but I haven't been following it. I figure I will read it eventually. Interesting that you enjoyed reading it but afterwards got annoyed by it!

    1. I haven't read Cloud Atlas myself -- this was my introduction to his work. Not sure I'd go back to Cloud Atlas or not though.


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