25. ‘The Bone Clocks’ by David Mitchell

It’s quite difficult to write this review because, for the first time, I’ve read a David Mitchell book that I didn’t love. I bought The Bone Clocks at the Hay Festival this year, when I saw the great man speak there, and I started reading it a couple of weeks later. Obviously I expected great things – Cloud Atlas is one of my favourite books of all time – but this one just fell short.

hay festival david mitchell bone clocks

Like many of Mitchell’s books, The Bone Clocks is divided into six novellas, each with a central plot thread running through them. The first section is set in 1984, the sixth in 2043, so we follow the central characters into the future. At the heart of the novel is a woman called Holly Sykes: she is a teenager at the beginning and an old woman by the end, and her life gets tangled up with a mysterious group called the Horologists. The Horologists are people who don’t die permanently – they are either cyclically reborn, or they transfer between bodies at will – and they are fighting a war for the ages against the Anchorites, a group who artificially create immortality for themselves by draining the souls of innocent mortals. Holly is neither Horologist nor Anchorite, but she will prove important to their war.

I found the second, third and fourth sections of this book the most interesting to read (interestingly none of them were written from Holly’s perspective, so maybe it was her narrative voice that I didn’t enjoy). I think the reason I liked them the most was because they dealt with smaller, more personal problems: Hugo Lamb’s first discovery of love, Ed Brubeck’s choice between his job and his family, and Crispin Hershey’s declining writing career. I think Mitchell is at his best when he makes you really, deeply care about a character, in a short space of time, and then gently nudges you towards the more magical elements. The fantastical intersects these characters’ lives, but it is not the central conceit. This is what he does so well in Cloud Atlas: the reincarnation is constantly hinted at, but it is not the main thread of each individual’s story.

In The Bone Clocks, there is one section entirely dedicated to the Horologists vs Anchorites war. It’s a lot more straight up fantasy adventure, which I don’t object to per se, but which I didn’t expect from a David Mitchell novel. He’s usually more subtle with his fantasy. As for the final section, I wasn’t entirely sure what it was there for. It is told from Holly’s perspective, in a world that has become dark and dystopian because humanity has used up all the planet’s resources. It’s an interesting idea, but since the main ‘time war’ plot ends in section five, section six feels a little tacked on, a final moral lesson for the reader, as it were.

Overall, this book felt a bit messier than the others I’ve read of Mitchell’s. It wasn’t as tightly woven, it wasn’t as masterful, and even some of the writing felt a little unfinished. Sometimes the dialogue felt too exposition-y, and at one point a character talked about another character, from Cornwall, driving off a cliff “near Truro”. I’m from Truro. I can’t think of a single cliff nearby (unless you’re being a bit lazy and just presume that, because the county is so small, everything is near everything else). I was initially excited that one of my favourite authors had mentioned my home town, then disappointed that he didn’t seem to have researched it.

The Bone Clocks is fine. There’s plenty to love about it, not least of which is Mitchell’s typically playful writing style and the way he plays with words. But it certainly isn’t one of his best, and it won’t make you fall in love.

“Here’s the secret: who is spared love is spared grief.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

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