The Short Version: In 1984, teenager Holly Sykes has a massive fight with her mother and decides to run away. But in the course of her exodus, her younger brother disappears – and she finds herself on the edges of a strange war that has gone on for centuries, between two sets of nearly immortal psychics. Spun off from that weekend, the next sixty years bring all sorts of changes for the world and for those who come into Holly’s life – and all the while, the war tips closer to a final reckoning.
The Review: On the first page of David Mitchell’s mind-bending masterpiece, Holly Sykes (our main-ish character or at least the main thread through the whole novel) touts the wonders of Talking Heads’ Fear of Music – but it’s a song from a different Talking Heads album that comes to mind right now: “Born Under Punches”. Or perhaps, more currently, a lyric from the new Spoon album: “Time’s gone inside out.” For time has seemingly stopped, as though I’ve been hiatused, and although the book is done, I’m left drifting in the calm, beautiful literary sea of this novel.
The easiest point of reference for David Mitchell will, for most people, be Cloud Atlas. That book, now ten years old, was critically lauded almost unanimously – and for good reason. It was a complex, ornate puzzle of a novel that never quite unlocked itself entirely. But it pales in comparison to the far more straightforward intricacies of The Bone Clocks. This novel has tricks and labyrinthine connections but it also features an all-too-human heart. It is as though Mitchell, in building this particular bone clock, knew that in order to animate it, it would need the pulse of a heart. Many hearts, in fact.
For while Holly Sykes is arguably the story’s main character (and what a delightful invention she is), the story bounces to different points of view for successive ‘books’. It might not be clear right away how they’re connected, but you’ll see it. Mitchell takes his time, leaving Holly right as she discovers that her brother Jacko had gone missing… and then drops the reader into the hoity-toity life of a Cambridge toff several years later – leaving you wondering how, if at all, this was going to connect to what appeared to be the opening adventure in an altogether crazy story. But while each little novella feels self-contained, they build upon one another to develop a larger sense of the world; they are not nesting dolls so much as they are expansion packs. It is a daring kind of storytelling, especially when there is a single plot that we’re following (unlike Cloud Atlas, which had much larger pretensions to theme as opposed to nitty-gritty plot), but the reader’s faith will be rewarded.
Indeed, it struck me only after I had finished the fifth of six parts to this book just how long Mitchell was able to keep me going as a reader without really giving me much information at all. As I tweeted, a massive “wait, what the WHAT” moment happens about 60 pages into the book – and a whole lot of truly batshit crazy drops all at once: terms like “Anchorite” and “Blind Cathar” and “the Dusk” start flying around and who is this guy and that old lady and what the hell is going on!? And Mitchell gives you zero answers. Holly’s ‘normal’ life goes on, the weirdness interrupted by an ordinary (if horrible) tragedy. And as the narrative spirals out further from Holly, ordinary realities continue to shunt the weirder stuff off to one side. This is not to say that it isn’t there – oh trust me, reader, it’s there all right – but rather that Mitchell consistently pulls us back to a place of understanding, usually by putting the really weird stuff towards the end of a ‘book’. We are, in this way, Atemporals just like some of the characters in this book – specifically a Sojourner, like Xi Lo – as we travel through each of these lives on our way forward through time.
And when the exposition comes, it feels almost like a bonus treat. The reader has enjoyed so much of the story up til that point – the adventures, the romances, the crumbling of our world even as we race towards more wondrous abilities – that we almost don’t notice that it has been a full two-thirds of the book where we know barely anything about the larger picture of this novel. But that, too, is a neat trick: for when do we, as individuals, ever really see the larger picture? It is only in hindsight, from a higher vantage point where we can look back on ‘history’, that we understand just what was going on overall.
And then, perhaps most daringly, Mitchell keeps going. He delivers an action-packed spec-fic adventure, the sort of thing that would ostensibly be the big final-act set piece, then leapfrogs forward one more time to a point twenty further years down the line. In so doing, he does many things but most importantly he reminds the reader that the heart of this book is not the adventure but rather the people. And we come to find that this was, after all is said and done, not the story of a mysterious set of body-hopping psychics out to destroy one another but that it was, from the very start, the story of a girl and of her life and the lives that intersected with hers. She was born into an extraordinary circumstance and as a result her story is fantastical and extraordinary – but in so many ways you can barely even count. Her dealings with the Atemporals might continually affect the path that Holly Sykes’ life takes – but her life occurs regardless of those dealings. Mitchell takes a globe-spanning, mind-bending story and pours it into a single person.
Astonishingly, he has captured life itself.
Rating: 6 out of 5. Simply, a masterpiece. I could talk – at some length – about the easter eggs, about the way Mitchell threads things through the whole novel (Talking Heads fans, pay close attention to the last part of the book), about the bonkers imagination that went into all things Atemporal, about the all-too-possible future laid out here, about the commentary on consumerism and the fading literary universe and music, and about so much more… but to do so would lessen, I think, the enjoyment of the book for a reader. There are many things to discover here. I’ve, perhaps, already said more than enough: go forth and find them for yourself.