Part fantasy, part thriller, all literary marvel, David Mitchell’s ambitious, mind-bending new novel defies genre. The Bone Clocks stretches the boundaries of time, space and immortality and further extends the literary maze of the author’s overlapping fictional worlds. It dabbles in metaphysics and roams across continents, ranging from 1980s England (striking miners, Margaret Thatcher, Talking Heads albums) to a ravaged, dystopian future (rationing, isolation, dependence on Chinese largesse). There’s so much going on, you would be exhausted if Mitchell weren’t such a superb stylist.
But there’s another force driving The Bone Clocks besides its intellectual and artistic heft. Like Mitchell’s masterpiece Cloud Atlas, this novel may ultimately slide into the realm of science fiction, but it never shortchanges the passions of real, recognizable life. What keeps you reading — avidly, nervously — is its geniune compassion for the human condition, for its celebration of our ability to suffer loss and still sacrifice, rendered chiefly in the form of working-class hero Holly Sykes.
Teenage Holly: defiant; rebellious; sexually precocious. “Being born’s a hell of a lottery,” she thinks resentfully, mulling the fortunate circumstances one can tumble into without even trying. Her dad owns a pub, no silver spoon in her mouth. But Holly has no idea what she’s really been born into, not yet.
Holly is 15 when The Bone Clocks opens in 1984. She has just slammed out of her house after a fight with her mother over her inappropriate older boyfriend, who immediately dumps her. Fuming and hurt, Holly decides to give her mother a scare by hiding out in the countryside for a few days. She runs into a classmate, Ed Brubeck (“a guy, yes, but not a total tosser. . . . People are icebergs, with just a bit you can see and loads you can’t”). She allows him to accompany her for a while, but they part ways, and then strange things begin to happen.
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Unsettling events are familiar to Holly. As a child she heard voices she called the Radio People (“Not mad, or drooly, or specially scary, even, not at first . . . ”). But frightening they became, leading Holly to tell an adult, which resulted in a visit to a child psychiatrist named Marinus, who cures her, sort of.
But that cure doesn’t prevent the eventual tragedy that sends teenage Holly home to her family and haunts her for the rest of her life. Nor does it stop the invisible war that rages around her, which is destined — no, scripted — to draw her in.
The novel’s structure resembles but doesn’t copy that of Cloud Atlas; it’s chronological, more of a traditional mystery than an interlocking narrative puzzle. Who are these shadowy mystics who can visit you in your dreams and wipe your memory clean, and why are they meddling in human affairs?
New narrators appear, and their connections to Holly lure them into this complicated, unseen battle between good and evil, too: Hugo Lamb, a morally challenged Cambridge scholarship student; Holly’s old friend Ed Brubeck, who grows up to be a war correspondent numbed by tragedy; and Crispin Hershey, the “Wild Child of British Literature,” a boozing, embittered writer who has failed to live up to his early success (his hilarious and horrifying adventures on the book festival circuit make you wonder what Mitchell has encountered on his own rounds).
Several characters emerge who will be familiar to Mitchell fans, chief among them Lamb, who tormented the young protagonist of Mitchell’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel, Black Swan Green. The appearance of Dr. Marinus, who appeared in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, presents a startling question: What is an 18th century doctor doing in ’80s London? Time and space are fluid in The Bone Clocks — Mitchell is working on something big here, creating worlds where reality and fantasy overlap seamlessly — so don’t be surprised to see further connections in his work.
The novel’s relentless pace is interrupted abruptly toward the end of the book, when Mitchell reveals the intentions of this secret group of mystics through lengthy monologues. With all the explanations of Anchorites and Atemporals and Blind Cathars of Something or Other, the momentum winds down, and its hold on you wavers. There’s too much exposition, too much explaining, and it begins to feel like a lecture.
But keep going. Mitchell redeems himself with an elegant twist and a final act that carries deep, well-earned emotional clout. The novel ends on a note that’s satisfying as well as heartbreaking. “You only value something if you know it will end,” Holly tells Hugo during their brief time together. What we value defines us, The Bone Clocks tells us. Sometimes it’s life. Sometimes it’s love. It’s definitely this book.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.