Book Reviews
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Book Review – The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks tells the story of Holly Sykes and it covers six decades of her life. It begins with a teenage Holly running away from her family and ends with a granny Holly trying to survive in a dystopian future where the world’s oil resource has run out. The novel is divided into six novella-length parts, the form that Mitchell is, I daresay, most comfortable with, and they represent a decade each of Holly’s life.

Each part is narrated by a different character. There’s Holly herself in the first and last parts, a Cambridge undergraduate and a returning character from Black Swan Green (Mitchell’s fourth), a war journalist who may have become a war junkie, a writer who was once the Wild Child of British Letters, and another returnee from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Mitchell’s fifth) who is a doctor and an Horologist.

What is an Horologist? It is a soul who, after its body dies, can’t help but be resurrected in another child’s nearly dying body. It’s a sort of a birthright, a supreme gift, if you may, considering that immortality is one. There are very, very few Horologists in the world, about 0.00000001%, and they keep together. They follow a certain Script, a nebulous thing that guides them. They have keen memories of their past lives and they have such powers as memory redaction, mind control, telepathy, and precognition.

Who wouldn’t want to be an Horologist? Some of us may not want to be immortals, but the Anchorites do. They do not have that birthright and they look at Horologists as a very tight aristocratic circle. Since their souls cannot achieve immortality, they extend their lives by slowing their ageing process to a near stop through nefarious means. Essentially, they are soul vampires. They also have powers of telekinesis and teleportation, and their circle is also exclusive, recruiting members through their shady discretion.

The war between the two groups of Atemporals, i.e. the Horologists and the Anchorites, i.e. the good and the bad, is a fantasy subplot which is actually the main vein of the novel. Some people may be put off by this, but the thing is, I find it fascinating. I grew up wishing I have powers of such sort, so you can imagine how delighted I am when this “subplot” thickens. However, it only does so much, much later in the novel. The fantasy yarn only unravels at the fifth part. Two-thirds of the novel is devoted to a slow build that connects Holly Sykes’s pivotal role in this century-long war.

One disappointment that I have with the novel is that the narrators sound too much alike. What denominator do Cambridge scholars, journalists, literary writers, and renowned doctors have in common? It is too easy for Mitchell to tell a story from the point of view of any of these intellectual character types, and attempts at nuanced dialogues and forms are only mildly felt. That is except the third part where the narrative weaves back and forth between a wedding in England (the present) and a war in Iraq (the recent past). The rest are pretty much straightforward narratives, jumping from day to day or year to year.

The novel also feels like a rehash of Cloud Atlas (Mitchell’s third) and, to an extent, Ghostwritten (Mitchell’s first), but with less style and flair. The writing is good but not as good as, say number9dream (Mitchell’s second). It also didn’t have much to say about the human condition since it is deeply concerned with the Horologists. Is immortality a human condition? It is of human interest, but anyone’s guess is as good as mine. I’ve wondered about the soul and immortality but have not delved into these unlike Mitchell. These two are recurring motifs in Mitchell’s works. He desires to believe in the continuity of the soul, according to a Bookworm podcast episode, and this belief is granted a theology of its own in the novel.

And so we fall back on Holly for the mortal and human part of this novel. She has led a slightly interesting life than ours, even without the Atemporals’ meddling. We know her losses, her griefs, and her fears. And we also know her joys, her dreams, and her hopes. The teenage Holly muses on what Heaven is:

I put my hand on the altar rail. ‘What if … what if Heaven is real, but only in moments? Like a glass of water on a hot day when you’re dying of thirst, or when someone’s nice to you for no reason, or …’ Mam’s pancakes with Toblerone sauce; Dad dashing up from the bar just to tell me, ‘Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite’; or Jacko and Sharon singing ‘For She’s A Squishy Marshmallow’ instead of ‘For She’s A Jolly Good Fellow’ every single birthday and wetting themselves even though it’s not at all funny; and Brendan giving his old record player to me instead of one of his mates. ‘S’pose Heaven’s not like a painting that’s just hanging there for ever, but more like … Like the best song anyone ever wrote, but a song you only catch in snatches, while you’re alive, from passing cars, or … upstairs windows when you’re lost …’

And yet, these are concerns that seem to be less or even not important when put beside the Horologists’ immortal concerns on winning a war against the bad. And now, putting everything into consideration, I find myself really enjoying this novel. I can overlook all the little shortcomings because of my overflowing love for David Mitchell. It’s not that he has written a mediocre book; I’m just trying to be as objective as possible by pointing out this and that. The Bone Clocks, a reference to our mortal bodies, is overall a very entertaining novel, and isn’t a novel’s foremost goal to delight the reader?

[Read in August 2015.]
[5 out of 5 stars.]
[595 pages. Hardcover. Signed first UK edition. A gift from Monique.]

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10 Comments

  1. I am so glad you mentioned the Narrator issue! I really struggled with it. I read on the train and people are always talking and making such noise and this issue made it really easy to get distracted.

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