When I was a kid, I liked books that took me on an adventure. Many did. They laid down a few rules, introduced our hero, and off we went, through twisting, perilous journeys and transformative loves. This stopped happening at some point. The YA novels became rote. Sure, there was adult novels containing adventure aplenty, but the essential, magical piece was missing.
I’m sure you can see where I’m going here: The Bone Clocks took me on that adventure, again.
It’s 1984 and fifteen year old Holly Sykes is running away from home for typical reasons — fights with mother, questionable decisions w/r/t much older boyfriend, general familial/societal misunderstanding. Like many teenagers, Holly is the only one who has ever felt these feelings before, ever. Mitchell shows care and empathy for adolescents even when we know they are being ridiculous. Holly’s plight ratchets up a few notches beyond mere teen angst when it’s revealed she had a series of odd, possibly supernatural events happen to her as a child (labeled Holly Sykes and the weird shit part 1, part 2, etc.) and the adumbral personages from this period of her life start surfacing in the present day (of 1984).
And as we turn the page on Holly’s final, self-shocking revelation, we see the date has changed from 1984 to 1991 and we are are in the first-person-I head of a completely different person, bereft of Holly’s resolution. This is how the book flows — time jumps and character swaps.
It’s not an uncommon technique in literature to leap large swathes of time in a single turn of the page. But, The Bone Clocks limits the chapters to such discreet, episodic moments in time. This, combined with the changing points of views, means that you’ll be embroiled in a character’s immediate problems and then swap twenty years to another character and come to see the first character’s turmoil as a distant blip, long resolved. It makes a single life seem really quite short. This helps set up the appeal of the villains — the soul sucking Anchorites that live forever and owe no small debt to Anne Rice’s vampires. The moral failings of living forever, especially when they require some of cost (‘decanting’ innocents!), have been affirmed as verboten ad nauseum. It takes a skilled writer to breath life into why immortality can be so appealing. The villains really are jerks though.
The physical design of the book itself is a continuation of the time theme. A clock in the top right of the page literally ticks down. It’s a fascinating mechanism and a sell for the singular experience of reading a physical book. I read this in paper but I recently bought an eReader and the comparison between the two has been on my mind of late.
David Mitchell, as always, is a superb writer of prose. He slips into the voice of each character and each time period, though there is a trademark, Mitchellian turn of phrase that remains regardless of the chapter. He’s the sort of writer who could write anything and I’d read it. I’d read his grocery lists, no joke.
The novel isn’t flawless. It’s long and the pacing isn’t entirely perfect. The fantastic and realist elements don’t always mesh as well as they could, especially when compared to Mitchell’s masterful Cloud Atlas. But these are minor detractors to an excellent book. So much so, I am reading non-fiction next to avoid being disappointed by the next novel I pick up.