The Bone Clocks is another expansive novel by David Mitchell. At over 600 pages in the hardback edition, it is epic in length and in content. In considering this work with the similar, Cloud Atlas, I think Mr. Mitchell may have reinvented the epic saga for our times. Both of these novels span from 59 to 500 years in their narratives, and even longer in their backstories. They deal with timeless themes, and particularly with the idea of reincarnation or of souls' survival transcending centuries. In all of it, Mr. Mitchell is examining the connecting threads between lives and expressing the theme of "we're all connected," but also much more.
Where Cloud Atlas presented six stories set over 500 years of time peopled with the same souls in different incarnations, The Bone Clocks stays with the span of a single lifetime (59 years), although there are characters in it who have existed for millennia. The novel is also composed of six "novellas," though there is a central story line that connects them. All told from the point of view of a different single character, although the first and last are of the same character (Holly Sykes) at different times in her life. Though they are all connected, each stands on its own, at least from the viewpoint of the narrating character. It is within this framework that Mr. Mitchell works his magic.
The central character, and catalyst, of The Bone Clocks is Holly Sykes. We first meet her at the age of 15 when she is running away from home after a major argument with her mother over a boyfriend and a slap in the face. This is the first "novella" and it follows Holly's experiences and encounters on the road. She has paranormal experiences that only increase as she travels, and several of the people she meets become major characters in her life later. Isn't life like that?
Making incidental or secondary characters from early the story, major characters later is part of the fun of Mr. Mitchell's books. He's not original in this but he does it well and it lends to the tension he maintains throughout. It also underscores the web of relationships that we live in. Even when he's relating the nonheroic events of a character's life, he keeps enough suspense roused to maintain the reader's engagement. You always have the feeling that "this is leading somewhere." And he injects little mysteries (like the periodic appearance of the half-Asian girl with the shaved head) that eventually come to fruition in unexpected ways. For a work of this length, maintaining that reader engagement is a feat of capable authorship.
In Cloud Atlas, Mr. Mitchell displayed a real knack for very stylized dialogue, from nineteenth century writing to 1970s era TV crime programs. He doesn't do so much of this in The Bone Clocks with the exception of the character of Crispin Hershey who is a one-hit wonder author. Hershey's dialogue is a pleasure to read and has a cadence that reminds me of Hugh Grant in all his films.
There is a strong paranormal vein in The Bone Clocks, but it strikes me as not so much an expression of Mr. Mitchell's view of life and the universe, but rather as a plot device. The central storyline that drives all the novellas (whether the narrating character knows it or not) is a war between two competing factions of "immortals." One faction is natural immortals that are always reincarnated through a mechanism they don't understand. The other is "contrived" immortals who attain their reincarnations by basically abducting the bodies of select persons and thus killing their souls. So it's easy to see who the bad guys are here.
That main paranormal storyline comes to a head in the fifth novella, "An Horologist's Labyrinth," with a fight among supernaturals that would satisfy any fantasy epic fan and is the kind of climatic fight scene that should have completed the Harry Potter series.
The other novella plots all concern Holly Sykes but only the first and last are told by her. The second one is the story of Hugo Lamb as he parties at a Swiss ski resort where Holly is working in a bar and he falls in love with her. He also encounters the bad faction of immortals there. The third novella is the wedding of Holly and Ed Brubeck (a secondary character from the first novella). Ed is a well-known war correspondent who has covered all the US Mideast wars at the turn of the 21st century. His main conflict is being torn between his dual loves of family and job. The fourth novella is about the author, Crispin Hershey, who becomes a good friend of Holly (who gains recognition herself as a author with a book about her paranormal experiences). Crispin is tortured by an act of revenge he perpetrated on a reviewer that became a tragedy rather than the simple comeuppance he intended. The resolution for him involves confession of cowardice, and maybe some kind of divine judgment. The fifth novella involves the fight of immortals I mentioned above. The sixth takes us back to Holly's narration when she is in her seventies. She lives in a world "after the fall" in our near future. Mr. Mitchell's description of this world is, I think, a good extrapolation on where current trends are taking us. He depicts a dire world but is probably optimistic in that depiction. This part is anticlimactic to the paranormal storyline, but it does play a part.
Mr. Mitchell injects a lot into his stories, almost to the point of being overwhelming, but the levels are presented in an accessible way. The narrative carries the reader along easily and leaves her with stores of food for thought for some time to come. This is Mr. Mitchell's genius and it's what makes me want to read all of his works.
Even so, Mr. Mitchell makes some statements that I don't agree with. In Ed Brubeck's story, he places us in the middle of the Iraq war (i.e., US occupation) from a reporter's eye view. This is interesting material and it should be enlightening to most US readers, as I think it is mostly accurate. He shows the futility of the "war" and gives some feel for the cynical, bombastic, inept arrogance behind it. But I think he doesn't go far enough. He is ultimately too easy on the US. He could have focused on the sheer evil driving that conflict (and associated ones) and tied it to the good vs evil theme of the main supernatural storyline. That he didn't (there and at other points) may define the lines he can't bring himself to cross.
The Bone Clocks is an engrossing, entertaining, enlightening read that reaches the high bar Mr. Mitchell has set in his other works. In may surpass that bar in that it is more cohesive overall than Cloud Atlas. It is on my list of all-time favorites and I highly recommend it.