Mitchell’s latest not perfect, but worth the time
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