The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

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“Beware of asking people to question what’s real and what isn’t. They may reach conclusions you didn’t see coming.”

The Bone Clocks is a decade-spanning fantasy novel about the lies and justifications that result in evil. It has psychics, dimension hopping, and immortal soul-suckers, but everything turns back to the question of why people hurt each other.

Age and its numerous horrors haunt a large cast of characters, and constant time-jumps means their rapid declines become a worry for the reader too. Years fall away like leaves from a dying tree until, before you know it, the people Mitchell is making you care about are rotting in the ground. This gives the previously mentioned immortal soul-suckers some nice thematic resonance.

The characters are, as should be expected with Mitchell, the sturdiest part of this novel’s foundations aside from the handsome prose. Mitchell can make someone flawed but empathetic, and in this the case, the nastier they are the more fun they seem to be to read. More than once I thought, “How have I grown to love this character? They’re a bastard.” They’re rarely unrepentant bastards, though. Combine this internal intrigue with Mitchell’s sharp sense of humour and it’s easy to stay interested.

Your expectations for each section are adjusted as the stories go on. For example, a war reporter was the narrator in one of strongest parts of the novel, but not because of firefights or battle scenes. His struggles back in rural England were about parenthood, and addressed the fear of losing a child in a way that was visceral. I felt my stomach tense over and over again, and this all informed the rest of the novel (which explores a number of strained parental relationships) in interesting ways.

There’s a seriousness about the fantasy narrative that make moments comic relief welcome. The rude, self-obsessed author was an on-the-nose parody of Martin Amis (Mitchell has denied this… but I don’t believe him), and his desperation and self-pity reminded me of Timothy Cavendish’s farcical appearance in Cloud Atlas; the former’s story was more poignant than the latter, though, due to the sad transformation we watched Hershey go through as he aged.

There’s not a lack of personality on display here, then. The problems come back to the plot and pacing.

The structure is less controlled than in Mitchell’s other works. Only the fifth section delves into this War, which is more disconnected from everyday life than the rest of the novel (even the sixth part’s dystopian future), although Mitchell wisely keeps the stakes in this supernatural conflict low scale, at least relative to most fantasy. There are, fortunately, no feeble references to magical macguffins which might destroy the world: a Capital-W-War is ongoing over the right of a small group of powerful people to prey on the weak for sustenance, and this ties back to the way death looms above human lives. It’s interesting, but rushed. The descriptions are less grounded. Instead of just pushing people away with their minds, or something equally simple (if hokey), “[Horologists] pour psychovoltage into a neurobolas and kinetic it [their] assailants”. It feels as though you’ve been blasted into a parody of the earlier, far more restrained musings on the supernatural.

I’m all for ambitious fantasy, but there has to be a balance which The Bone Clocks never manages. The quotidian and the supernatural are firmly kept apart until the later sections, where they merge unsatisfactorily. This is particularly frustrating as Mitchell excelled at combining the genres in other novels. Still, I don’t think a writer who melded the supernatural and mundane as well as the writer of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet would make a change so obviously jarring without specific intentions in mind. The over-the-top elements could even be read as a challenge to “traditional literature” readers who might normally dismiss a novel solely because of its genre. Mitchell would have known all of these elements would alienate people, even if he was hoping they would meld more smoothly than they did.

When it doesn’t work it really doesn’t work, but for the majority of its pages I was enthralled. It’s flawed, but not much more so than Ghostwritten—Mitchell’s first novel, often cited as his second-best—as that novel had a jarring sci-fi element, which paralleled my problems with this book. This is a roundabout way of saying I’d rather dive into a very flawed but ambitious novel by Mitchell than a more consistent work by 90% of the living authors I’ve read.

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