Review: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

What is born must one day die. So says the contract of life, yes? I am here to tell you, however, that in rare circumstances this iron clause may be… rewritten.”

It is difficult to articulate exactly where the beauty of David Mitchell’s prose lies. There is an immense charm both in the individual phrase and his artfully crafted plots: pensive, lyrically wistful-and yet bursting with a vivid hope of human potential.  A perverse analogy, perhaps, but there is something of an Alt-J lyric about the abstract metaphor and small twists of eloquent emotion.

The Bone Clocks- audacious, kaleidoscopic and dazzlingly inventive- is perhaps his most spectacular offering yet. The ambition of this book cannot be overplayed; the diversity of characters, period and places (both real and imagined) is almost overwhelming, extending even beyond the cultural touchstone of Cloud Atlas. Transporting the reader from a sleepy late summer afternoon in the early 1980s through to a post-contemporary Ireland struck by catastrophic climate change and dwindling energy sources, the story is epic in all senses. While it is punctuated by dark flickers of fantasy, do not be mistaken- this is not a ‘fantasy’ novel. The fantastic elements are outlandish, certainly (involving vying groups of eternally lived soul-decanters and “atemporal” vigilantes); but they are instrumental rather than inherent to the novel, permitting Mitchell to capture the reflective melancholy which occurs whenever one’s own brief life is juxtaposed against the sweep of history. A constant existential fragility of both individuals and the aggregate of humanity pervades the novel- the drabness and prosaic peril of a future Ireland, lacking both a functional state and a secure resource supply, is deeply shocking. This continual consciousness of humanity’s mortality seems to be one of the central tenets of the novel: we are all seen as the titular ‘bone clocks’, slowly unwinding and easily shattered.

This is Mitchell’s astounding gift: to effortlessly weave individual lives into the greater narrative of humanity. This process is powerfully moving in its own right; the deft touches of pathos that he adds augment the emotional richness of the novel. The obvious parallels of reincarnation and significant temporal and spatial variation will doubtlessly draw comparisons between The Bone Clocks, and Could Atlas and number9dream, Mitchell’s other disparate narrative novels. However, I think the real likeness is with one of Mitchell’s lesser known but finest books “Black Swan Green”. Though the latter is more of a true Bildungsroman, capturing just a few short months of a boy’s adolescence, both are unusual for Mitchell in their focus on the progression of an individual journey rather than a prismic variegation of separate lives. While his penning of micro-portraits of characters is delightful, I cannot help but feel that the greatest reward comes from Mitchell hitting his full narrative range and letting a life unfold slowly over the full course of a book. This is certainly the case with Holly Sykes, The Bone Clocks’ protagonist. She is doubtlessly one of the most identifiable, sympathetic and complex characters that Mitchell has created, augmented by the genuine and powerful sense of her growing up and then ageing as the pages turn. Her life both provides a unifying thread to the novel and articulates a profound comment on the unitary experience of being a human. The supporting cast crackles with all the wit and imagination that one has come to expect of Mitchell: Hugo Lamb, a Cambridge undergraduate, provides a case study in the construction of an urbane sociopath, effortlessly charming and with some of the funniest and sharpest dialogue I’ve seen in contemporary fiction. (A scene set in an end of term Cambridge pub will be readily identifiable to anyone who has attempted to muscle their way through the bar at the KA on Friday of 8th week.)

For devotees of Mitchell, there is an added richness to the novel. Several of the main characters appear across Mitchell’s other books; Lamb actually first appeared as the charismatically dangerous cousin of Black Swan Green’s protagonist. There is also a welcome reappearance of Dr. Marinus from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, once again as an uncompromising and pure force for good. Indeed, this sense of sonder pervades all of Mitchell’s work, with just a hint or flicker of a single unified universe lying behind his various unique stories. It heightens what is already an extraordinarily impressive body of work.

In David Foster Wallace’s words, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being”. This could scarcely be truer than it is of The Bone Clocks, capturing, spark-like, the briefness and vivid brightness of human life. This is a sparkling gem of a book by an author at the height of his impressive powers.

image credit: NPR