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Book Review: The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

It's about a psychic war between good and evil immortals, but nobody wants to use the "f" word.


The Bone Clocks

Random House, 2014, 624 pages



Following a scalding row with her mother, 15-year-old Holly Sykes slams the door on her old life. But Holly is no typical teenage runaway: A sensitive child once contacted by voices she knew only as "the radio people", Holly is a lightning rod for psychic phenomena. Now, as she wanders deeper into the English countryside, visions and coincidences reorder her reality until they assume the aura of a nightmare brought to life. For Holly has caught the attention of a cabal of dangerous mystics - and their enemies. But her lost weekend is merely the prelude to a shocking disappearance that leaves her family irrevocably scarred. This unsolved mystery will echo through every decade of Holly's life, affecting all the people Holly loves - even the ones who are not yet born. A Cambridge scholarship boy grooming himself for wealth and influence, a conflicted father who feels alive only while reporting from occupied Iraq, a middle-aged writer mourning his exile from the bestseller list - all have a part to play in this surreal, invisible war on the margins of our world.

From the medieval Swiss Alps to the 19th-century Australian bush, from a hotel in Shanghai to a Manhattan townhouse in the near future, their stories come together in moments of everyday grace and extraordinary wonder. Rich with character and realms of possibility, The Bone Clocks is a kaleidoscopic novel that begs to be taken apart and put back together.




David Mitchell writes science fiction and fantasy. But he's been nominated for Man Booker prizes and his books sit on "literary" shelves, so you totally shouldn't call them science fiction, even though Cloud Atlas included a dystopian society with genetically engineered clones and a post-apocalyptic far future, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, while technically a historical novel, included an evil immortal monk with psychic powers and a reincarnated doctor named "Marinus," who shows up again in The Bone Clocks.

Reading other reviews of The Bone Clocks, I can't help noticing that reviewers are deeply divided between whether the fantasy parts of this novel are the best parts or the weakest parts. Like Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks is a multiple-POV novel partitioned in several parts, each taking place in a different time period, from the 1970s to the 2030s. The central character is Holly Sykes, who begins the book as a runaway teenager and ends it as an elderly survivor of the post-Peak Oil apocalypse. But Holly really only plays bit parts in most of the sections, being connected to the POV characters in ways that only begin to fit together past the midpoint.

Without giving away too many spoilers, this book contains two factions of immortals - one of them is good, reincarnating lifetime after lifetime into the bodies of children. The other is evil, having found a way to "decant" the souls of others into their own bodies and thus giving them physical immortality. Both sides have supernatural powers, demonstrated here and there along the way but climaxing in a battle at an ancient monastery with psychic fireworks worthy of a Japanese anime. This and the very clear delineation between the benevolent, humane Horologists and the vile, predatory Anchorites makes this a book that by another author would have been a straightforward fantasy epic about a secret war between illuminati, but because David Mitchell wrote it, the publisher and reviewers alike are coy about the supernatural elements.

In fact, most of the stories contained in the book could have been told without any of the supernatural elements. The tale of lovesick, betrayed Holly and her adventures as a teenage runaway, then her louche lover while she's spending a few years as a young adult working at a Swiss chalet and hiding from her past, then her husband, a war correspondent who just left Baghdad and can't wait to go back, then the egotistical, self-centered louse Crispin Hershey, a famous author who strikes up an unlikely friendship with middle-aged Holly after she becomes famous writing a New Agey book about her psychic experiences, and finally, Holly's initiation into the secret war between the Horologists and the Anchorites. And then, post-climax, Holly's precarious survival in an Ireland that's been stripped of technology and resources, rapidly reverting to a pre-industrial society that's going to have to weather a few generations of warlords and marauder gangs before it begins to see anything like civilization again.

These were all stories focused around human drama and real-world (or speculative real world) events, in which the secret psychic battles were mostly background. Some people love the Crispin Hershey section, for example, in which David Mitchell is satirical, self-referential, teeing off on publishing and authorial egos, both revisiting The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, the similar section (and character) in Cloud Atlas, and allegedly taking the piss out of Martin Amis. I quite liked it myself, as Crispin Hershey, like Timothy Cavendish, is a despicable yet oddly endearing character. But many reviewers didn't, thinking it had almost nothing to do with the main plot (but really, the "main plot" is entirely contained in the fifth act, with everything else being a prelude and postscript). By the same token, some reviewers liked the final, epic confrontation between the Horologists and the Anchorites; others thought it was comic book bullshit that detracted from the "seriousness" of a literary novel. (I will admit, the main villain yelling "Crush them like ants!" did feel a bit like Mitchell was channeling his inner scriptwriter too much.) You may or may not appreciate the political overtones of the husband/war-correspondent chapter, heavily critical of the Iraq War, and of course the final chapter is a blatant polemic about the end result of our oil-dependent, globalist, consumerism lifestyle

And wandering through all of these stories are immortal illuminati with psychic powers. So, maybe The Bone Clocks is a literary novel hiding between fantasy trappings, but I call it a fantasy novel. David Mitchell, like Haruki Murakami and Kazuo Ishiguro and Margaret Atwood, writes books that are blatantly science fiction and fantasy, yet somehow escape more than a grudging acknowledgment that they fit in that category. Admittedly, all of these authors write better than most SF and fantasy authors, and their stories are deeper and more layered than the average "secret supernatural war" novel or "post-apocalyptic dystopia" novel. But setting them apart because they're good is a bit of obvious genre bigotry. Bone Clocks is good, but it's totally a fantasy novel. 9/10.



Also by David Mitchell: My reviews of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Cloud Atlas.




My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, david mitchell, fantasy, literary, reviews
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