I have a confession to make: I don’t often read what most scholars refer to as “literature”. My tastes are simpler. I like thrillers, mysteries, fantasies, westerns, some historical fiction, the occasional autobiography, science fiction and, of course, horror novels. Oh sure, I read most of the required classics in school but it’s rare for me to seek out one of them on my own. And on the few occasions that I have, I usually race through them so I can get to the next genre book I have waiting on my shelf. Which is why I’m pleased to report that David Mitchell’s latest novel, The Bone Clocks, falls into both categories. It’s a genre book for sure, falling somewhere between horror and fantasy, but it’s also a magnificent piece of writing filled with wry satire, complex themes, elegant prose, and all the other devices that critics require in order to define something as “literature.” It’s a fun, fast paced read that you can pat yourself on the back for getting through and then pick up your next ‘trashy’ novel without any guilt.
This is only the second Mitchell novel I’ve read. The first, Cloud Atlas, was life changing. It redefined what I thought fiction capable of, combining a series of interlocking narratives, all from different genres, into a meditation on the human condition. On the slight downside, I must admit it was somewhat hard to get through. Just as you found yourself getting used to the language of a notary from the 1800’s, the narrative would jump a century or two and you had to become familiar with a whole new rhythm. In the last section of the novel, you practically had to learn a new language. The Bone Clocks uses a similar structure. It contains six connected narratives that work fine on their own but also form a part of the greater whole. I can’t tell for sure yet which novel I liked better but I can definitely say that The Bone Clocks is much more accessible.
The story begins in 1984 from the first person perspective of a 15 year-old girl named Holly Sykes. She’s got a 24 year-old boyfriend and runs away from home after a heated argument with her mother. This section works perfectly as a coming of age story but also introduces the novel’s more fantastical elements. Holly tells us that she’s heard voices since she was a little girl (The Radio People, she calls them) and even had a few nighttime visits from a mysterious woman named Ms. Constantin who claimed to be their chief representative. A psychiatrist helped her get rid of the voices and visions when she was young but as she searches for her identity while roaming the English countryside, the voices and visions begin to return. Is she losing her mind or is there something larger at work here? Mitchell throws us right into the heart of his complex mythology and doesn’t stop for breath or explanation. We are able to glean that Holly is a pawn in a war between a group of immortals known as the Horologists and the Anchorites. Which side is good and which side is bad, I’ll leave for you to discover.
We then jump to 1991 and the narration switches to a wealthy Cambridge student named Hugo Lamb. Lamb displays characteristics typical of a young aristocrat: he’s arrogant, charming, witty, and chauvinistic. He’s also a budding sociopath. Mitchell reveals this aspect gradually so while we expect him to be a bit of a prick, we don’t expect him to be capable of the awful things he does to his ‘friends’. Lamb has his own role to play in the immortal war, one that becomes clear when he encounters Holly at a ski lodge in the Swiss Alps. He finds himself falling in love for the first time and that turns this section, surprisingly, into one of the more moving chunks of the novel. Can a sociopath change his ways and come out decent if he is able to suppress his vile urges? It’s a question few take on but Mitchell handles it with depth and provides no easy answer. It also becomes clear here that the immortal battle serves as a sort of metaphor for the eternal war between the haves and the have-nots.
Next, we’re in Iraq in 2004 with a war journalist who is also connected to Holly Sykes. This is the shortest section of the novel and the most harrowing. If you think you’ve read all there is to read about the Iraq war, Mitchell proves you wrong. His descriptions of the chaos, the class war, the reasons for invasion, and the phony explanations as to why this was necessary are disturbing and revelatory. He also puts us squarely in the mindset of a junkie who gets his high from reporting on the horrors of the world. The inner turmoil of the narrator (I can’t say who it is without giving away plot points) provides a glimpse of how difficult it is for people to make a difference in the world without sacrificing everyone they hold dear to them.
The fourth section (and last one I can talk about without spoiling anything) puts us in the mind of Crispin Hershey, a famous British author struggling to remain relevant. This is by far the funniest portion of the novel and allows Mitchell to really cut loose. It even becomes something close to meta-fiction as Hershey is criticized for leaving his deep literary themes behind him in favor of writing a genre novel. Meta-fiction can sometimes be self-serving and annoying but Mitchell uses it to point out how ridiculous it is for critics to force authors into a box they’re only allowed to escape from when scholars deem it. Hershey shares some characteristics with Hugo Lamb but there’s much more pathos for this character. His meditations on family, aging, vengeance, guilt, and relationships are poignant and ring true. Of course, Crispin too is connected to Holly Sykes and is another major player in the immortal war that’s been raging on for centuries.
I can’t say much about the last two sections without giving the whole game away. Section five provides the answers to all the questions we have about the Horologists and the Anchorites and is the section of the book most steeped in fantasy and horror. It starts in 2020 but jumps back to the 1700’s, the 1800’s and even touches on ancient Babylonian times. Mitchell lets his imagination run completely wild here. The final section takes place in 2043 and…nope sorry, can’t tell you any more than that.
One thing I can say is that I love the way Mitchell depicts the future in his novels. He did this in Cloud Atlas too. He creates new words and phrases but doesn’t waste time telling you what they mean. If everyone in the future knows what a “Tab” is then why would they waste time explaining it? I appreciate this because it shows that Mitchell trusts his readers to be smart enough to figure things out on their own. He doesn’t talk down to us with clunky exposition. Granted, there’s a lot of exposition in section five but we’re more than ready for it by that point and Mitchell lets it flow naturally from the characters while being crafty enough to still hold back on crucial points.
Another delight is how meticulously constructed The Bone Clocks is. Casual lines of dialogue and seemingly inconsequential moments between characters from the early sections become major plot points in the fifth and final sections. And it’s not a cheat. Mitchell blatantly tells you what is going to happen as the novel progresses and, once again, trusts you to connect the dots. This is even evident in the title. What does ‘The Bone Clocks’ mean exactly? Once you find out, it makes perfect sense and ties all the novel’s themes together but is also so obvious you want to smack yourself for not figuring it out in the first 40 pages.
But besides all the great construction, the tense, exciting battles between the immortals, the rich humor, the magical elements, and the perfect descriptions of times and places; this is, at its core, a very human novel. It’s about us through the ages, how little we grow and evolve, and how the more things change, the more they stay the same. I think though, that Mitchell is a hopeful guy at heart despite his frequently bleak depictions of society. He understands that winning a small battle inside yourself is as important as winning a real one in the outside world. And that tiny acts of kindness can reach down through generations. It’s a remarkable book, entertaining and thoughtful, funny and scary, profoundly moving and deeply upsetting. My favorite thing though is that it proves that pieces of “literature” and “genre” books do not have to be mutually exclusive. The next time someone tells you that a horror of fantasy novel can never be great art, smack them, shove a copy of The Bone Clocks into their hands, and tell em to read it and weep.