Mitchell’s lat­est not per­fect, but worth the time

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Jill Wilson

THERE is no dis­put­ing David Mitchell’s bril­liance. The Bri­tish-born, Ir­ish-based nov­el­ist best known for Cloud At­las is an un­par­al­leled cre­ator of worlds, whether they’reth metic­u­lous ver­sions of the his­tor­i­cal past (dis­tant or re­cent), or wildly imag­i­na­tive spec­u­la­tive fu­tures. He is a mas­ter­ful sto­ry­teller,te lead­ing the reader on a breath­less but minutely de­tailed jour­ney with a di­verse va­ri­ety of nar­ra­tors, all equally well-re­al­ized, whose tales are ren­dered in ex­quis­ite prose. As you’re pulled along by hish sto­ries, you barely have time to sit back and take no­tice of his wiz­ardry, so seam­lessly does he in­ter­weave plot and style. Mitchell’s lat­est time-jumping, globe-hop­ping, mul­ti­ple-nar­ra­tor novel is no less ac­com­plished, but this time out, it too of­ten an­nounces it­self as striv­ing for that no­tice — there’s just a whiff of “see what I did there?” grand­stand­ing. It seems churl­ish to com­plain that a novel is overly am­bi­tious — though it’s a com­plaint that could also be lev­elled at Mitchell’s last book, the ut­terly en­joy­able but over­stuffed his­tor­i­cal novel The Thou­sand Au­tumns of Ja­cob de Zoet — but The Bone Clocks, as thrilling and as be­witch­ing as it is, some­times reaches too far, leav­ing the reader be­hind as the au­thor bus­ies him­self with the de­tails. At the cen­tre of the sprawl­ing story is Holly Sykes, whom we first meet as a surly 15-year-old who has run away from home in the throes of a bro­ken heart. Strange things are afoot in Holly’s world, and have been ever since she heard the voices of what she called “the ra­dio peo­ple” as a child, but Mitchell takes his time re­veal­ing their ori­gins. Along the way, we meet Hugh, a snooty Cam­bridge grad who may be a so­ciopath; Ed, a war re­porter who can’t give up the adren­a­line of the front lines de­spite his fam­ily; and Crispin, a bit­ter nov­el­ist who is see­ing his fame and for­tunes dwin­dle. All of them are or will be con­nected with Holly and, as usual, Mitchell makes each one a dis­tinct per­son­al­ity with his own nar­ra­tive voice. But be­hind the scenes, a big­ger story is brew­ing, one that will tie to­gether all the pieces in an oth­er­worldly way. Mitchell has of­ten in­cluded fan­tasy or sci­encefic­tion el­e­ments in his work, but The Bone Clocks is the first that could be out­right clas­si­fied as such. It’s the tale of two war­ring groups, the Horol­o­gists and the An­chorites. Both have ev­er­last­ing life, but each achieves it very dif­fer­ently. When the Horol­o­gists and the An­chorites are at the pe­riph­ery of the story, it crack­les with mys­tery and an­tic­i­pa­tion, but when Mitchell turns his fo­cus on the in­ner work­ings of each group, it goes slack. Oddly, the shad­owy en­clave of the An­chorites, a cult that preys on souls to stay youth­ful (prac­ti­tion­ers sneer­ingly re­fer to nat­u­rally ag­ing hu­mans as “bone clocks”), is the least well-imag­ined of his worlds.

Mitchell’s also a bit too self-con­scious about the book’s mix of gen­res — at one point, he has Crispin’s agent say, “A book can’t be half fan­tasy any more than a woman can be half preg­nant” (a crit­i­cism that might have been launched at Mitchell’s ear­lier work). That’s ob­vi­ously not true, but while The Bone Clocks calls to mind Lev Gross­man’s Ma­gi­cians se­ries or Madeleine L’En­gle’s work, both of which blend fan­tasy and re­al­ism, it feels slightly un­easy: the pieces don’t quite click. That doesn’t mean The Bone Clocks isn’t worth read­ing, how­ever. Even its less-suc­cess­ful sec­tions are page-turn­ers and, what­ever the era or cor­ner of the globe, real or imag­ined, Mitchell im­merses you in it. Long­time fans of the au­thor’s work will be in­trigued by the re­cur­rence of sev­eral char­ac­ters from pre­vi­ous books; the ap­pear­ance of Dr. Mar­i­nus from Ja­cob de Zoet is enough to merit a re-read­ing of that 2010 novel. A pro­longed epi­logue set in fu­ture Ire­land feels tacked on, but at the same time, it’s such a vividly re­al­ized world, it could be the start of its own novel. It leaves the reader ea­gerly an­tic­i­pat­ing where Mitchell will go next.

Jill Wilson is a Free Press copy ed­i­tor.

The Bone Clocks

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