THE BONE CLOCKS – David Mitchell (2014)

The Bone Clocks

What a fantastic book this is. Or rather 6 books. David Mitchell’s sixth novel is a tour de force. Mitchell is no small name: Cloud Atlas gathered widespread praise and attention – and also in The Bone Clocks he serves a grand narrative via 6 connected stories across 6 points in time – from 1984 to 2043, seasoned with a few shorter asides going back to earlier centuries. And similarly, The Bone Clocks is genre defying in a manner that’s pretty singular: the bulk of the book being straight forward literary fiction, but nonetheless with a backbone that’s firmly supernatural fantasy, and a final part that is straightforward, hard hitting dystopian near-future science fiction. This should appeal to nearly any type of reader, and I think it’s a masterpiece – not a term I whip out lightly.

I will return to the significance and impact of the final 6th in the second half of this review, and that part might be of interest for those of you who’ve read this book 3 or 4 years ago. It might be time to reconsider a few things. But first let me get a few other, more general remarks out of the way.

I haven’t read Cloud Atlas, or any of his other books, so I can’t comment on whether this title is better or not – and part of the answer to that question will be taste – but I can’t shake the feeling this is Mitchell’s magnus opus – for now. Written in a seemingly effortless and tasty prose, filled with real characters, genuine emotions, strong & urgent themes relevant to us all – this isn’t only escapist reading. Add to that a broad, kaleidoscopic feel, and an intricately constructed plot that’s obviously visible to a degree, yet so confident that you do not mind seeing the construction – as one does not mind seeing the brushstrokes when examining a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh up close, on the contrary even: seeing the actual brushstrokes and how they work in the composition is part of the joy.

Mitchell uses 5 point of view characters for every one of the book’s parts. There’s no jumping from viewpoint to viewpoint every other couple of pages, The Bone Clocks actually reads as a succession of novellas, every part being about 100 pages and featuring a different focal character. Both the first part, set in 1984, and the final part, set in 2043, use the character that’s central to the entire book – Holly Sykes. As she has grown from a teenager to a women in her seventies, in the ending chapter she can be considered a different character altogether.

As others have written, Mitchell’s command of language is something to behold, and each of these characters has a distinct voice, Mitchell’s prose following suit. When in a chapter adjectives like Carravagian and Byronically are served, and someone says “aerate your wallet” on the same page, it doesn’t even feel forced. Il faut le faire.

Not only the prose differs, also the plot of each part has its own feel. It’s one of the things that makes this book such a success, but I can imagine certain readers being uninterested in the teenage rebellion of the first part, or put off by the pedantry of the author character that takes up part 4, or unconvinced by the way Mitchell handles the supernatural war in part 5. The Bone Clocks really is 6 books as I wrote in the introduction, so some readers might find themselves all of a sudden reading a book they don’t like. Just to be clear – I loved it all. My advice to readers unenthusiastic about a certain part is to stick with it, as I think most readers will enjoy the overall tally.

Trusting you to check on multiple sources before deciding to read a book, I will not say a lot more about the story. What I will finish with is the powerful ending, and why it resonated with me the way it did. I will keep it spoiler free, but as I talked about a near-future dystopia above, ‘free’ is obviously a relative term.

The 2043 part hit me like a brick. Really. It affected me so much the autonomous nervous system in my gut decided to do some pretty heavy signaling, resulting in my stomach producing more acid than it should for about a week. Stress. Yes indeed. Creeping death.

What Mitchell serves is a very believable future in which Western society is slowly coming down. Coincidentally, I’ve been reading more on climate change lately, and what that might mean for us, and it only has just now dawned on me that we indeed only have a window of 10 to 12 years to drastically turn the wheel around.

I have to say I’m pretty pessimistic about the chance of that happening, as most politicians don’t seem to grasp the urgency of the matter. I’m also convinced we will not have to wait another 50 or 100 years to see significant changes in our biosphere, and big changes for human society. It’s happening now. We had spring in winter just a week ago – multiple days of 20 degrees Celsius in the second half of February, ffs.

On top of all that, and not even that related to climate change, the insect apocalypse is here too, a fact recently confirmed by a big meta-study published a few weeks ago, and if you understand ecosystems, that should get you extremely worried.

Then again, in a way, I already knew all of that last year too. I’ve been more or less pessimistic for quite some time. The thing is, I’ve become a father for the second time, just before I started The Bone Clocks, and it is the eerie realism of Mitchell’s last chapter, coupled with all of the above, that only now made me fully realize full blown trouble might well be for 2043, and not for 2140, like in KSR’s latest CliFi utopia.

Trouble is manifold in Mitchell’s near-future, but what struck me most is how vulnerable our current lives are. He evokes the claustrophobic effect of no power, no internet, no Skype, no information.

The fact that the last chapter is embedded in a novel that starts in 1984, in a story that deals explicitly with the volatility of individual life, makes it the most effective dystopia I have ever read. Most dystopias start out as one, or get there quickly after some set up. In The Bone Clocks it’s only the coda.

Because it’s the coda, it seems easily missed, as hardly any review I’ve read puts the focus on it, some reviews even stress the fun factor of this book. But Mitchell’s final words are bleak – and for an author who’s such a careful plotter it is crystal clear that that’s significant. (Then again, a lot of reviews were written over 4 years ago, and the sense of urgency was not as clear as it is now – luckily, this is one of those books that merit a reread.)

So yes indeed, this is a novel about human greed, just as it is a novel about children and family. Even more so, it is a farewell song. It is no coincidence what happens to Holy Sykes on the final pages, waving goodbye to her genetic future, hoping for the best, but being slowly erased by an incurable cancer.

32 responses to “THE BONE CLOCKS – David Mitchell (2014)

  1. Oh please, you whip it out every chance you get!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This one has been on my radar for some time. Glad to hear that it is good. Its structure sounds very similar to Cloud Atlas, which was also good.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I was prepared to be impressed with this when the reviews came out but, sad to say, I’ve not yet got round to actually reading it. Perhaps the urgency of the subject matter will give me that kick up the backside I need.

    You’ve also reminded me that I intended to reread Ursula Le Guin’s Orsinia before now: this had a similar structure—a group of short stories, seemingly unrelated except that they were all set in the same fictional country and ranged from the 12th to the 20th century. Bleak little vignettes, but I liked them.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I loved this one, glad to see another positive review of it (I also hadnโ€™t read anything else by Mitchell)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Have you read some of his other books since? I’m thinking Black Swan Green for my next Mitchell. CA or …Jacob Zoet are also strong contenders. I’ll probably end up reading those anyhow, they all seem different enough.


      • Reading De Zoet is particularly rewarding after reading The Bone Clocks. I read it when it was first published and (spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read Bone Clocks) figured, when reading the Bone Clocks, that Marinus was just a character Mitchell decided to bring back and retcon into being an immortal body-hopper. But nope, it’s very clear once you know the “rules” of the Bone Clocks, and Marinus even drops constant hints which the other characters write off as eccentricities.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s interesting, thanks! In the meantime, I’ve bought Zoet, CA and BSG. I generally wait half a year to a year before reading something else of an author, but I’m very much looking forward to dive in.


  5. Firstly, congratulations on the birth of your second child. ๐Ÿ™‚
    Secondly, I lurked a little (again) and Orsenia by Le Guin has gone on my list as a result (thank you Calmgrove).
    Thirdly, this has been on my list for a couple of years, ever since I read Slade House by Mitchell (because it was small and I was in between books) and really enjoyed it. I regularly pick it up in the library โ€ฆ and put it down again in favour of something else. But now? Now you’ve got me interested. I read KSR thanks to you, so why not Bone Clocks too?
    Thank you in advance. And again. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you!
      If you liked Slade House, you must read BC – you’re probably aware of this, but if not: Slade House seems to be built up from leftover ideas for BC, as that similarly deals with the battle between Anchorites and Horologists.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I had read somewhere that SH and BC were related books. Wasn’t sure how closely related they might be.
        Have put a reservation on the library copy, so I’ll pick it up Wednesday. ๐Ÿ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’ve read a bit more on it, and it’s not really about the same war, yet the people inhabiting Slade House operate in about the same manner as one faction in BC. As in all Mitchell novels, there are overlapping characters though. I’ll have to add it to my list too.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Damn, now I need to get my hands on it!
    By the way, congratulations on your second child’s birth! I believe that having children really drives home the need to work for a future for them and not go through Earth’s resources like a mindless virus… Right now we’re incurring debt they will be paying.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks!
      Yes indeed, it drives home the need, but I still feel I could do more: since I don’t live in the city anymore, I use a car quite often. A few years ago I even quit being a vegetarian. Etc. Then again, I shouldn’t feel bad about all that: the actions that are necessary will need to be taken on political levels, things are so out of control, it’s not so much in the individual’s hands anymore.
      Anyhow, I’m slowly transitioning to non-carbon where possible. I’m having solar installed this year, and in a few years, my next car will be electric. The same goes for how we heat our house. I just fear it will be too little, too late.
      I try to do my share via the voting booth and via teaching, but as we’ve been brainwashed to believe doing one’s own part will save us I keep on feeling morally conflicted.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Well, I do get your moral conflict, I feel it too ๐Ÿ˜‰ I’ve never been a full vegetarian, but for years I’ve been eating very limited amounts of meat – not sure though if palm oil and soy aren’t more harmful these days ๐Ÿ˜‰ We’re recycling, using bikes as much as possible in everyday commute, and trying to get as close to zero waste as is still sanitary, etc., but indeed there is a limited amount of what one family can do.
        On the other hand, however, I still think individual actions matter, and political say-so can only do as much (once it’s actually agreed upon), because if there’s no social support or understanding for political decisions it quickly declines into populist contest of giveaways. So, I still believe in “do your thing and remember there are others like you”, and if there’s enough of us it’ll actually matter ๐Ÿ˜‰

        Liked by 2 people

        • Yes true, politics without support won’t work, I didn’t want to imply the individual doesn’t matter, but so much more needs to be done on a cooperate/industrial level, it’s hard for the individual to not become a cynic.

          Liked by 1 person

      • Well, regardless of the actions undertaken on a political level, we need individuals to behave, and they need good example from enlightened people such as ourselves ๐Ÿ˜‰
        There I cases of good laws that have no effect as the population doesn’t care and the police/local authorities feel enforcement would only make people angry…

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Congratulations! You must be very busy, so it’s great to see you still posting reviews:) I enjoyed this, too, despite the sudden jump into the wizarding world of Parry Hotter in part 5. I preferred the focus on characterization in the first four parts, pedantry and all. To be honest, the magical battle kind of felt thrown in at the last minute. It really stood out from the rest of the book and took me out of the story. But that’s just my interpretation. You have made me very keen to re-read the final part, if not the whole book.

    Regarding his other works, I’ve read them all and would strongly recommend either “The Thousand Autumns …” or “Cloud Atlas.” It’s all subjective but I think they are both close to genius. “Black Swan Green” could be good as a complete change in style, though. It’s much more like an autobiography, but fascinating all the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I’m a bit more busy now, yes indeed. ๐Ÿ™‚ But it’s managable for now, so I hope to be able to keep on reading/posting on the rate I have, about 2 books a month, depending page count.
      Good to hear from somebody who has read them all. I know BSG is something else, but I thought the teenage perspective in TBC was very well done, so I’m curious to explore that further.
      I agree 100% part 5 is the weakest of TBC, but I was intruiged about the fantasy part from the onset of the book, so I was curious about the finale. It could have been more spectacular or creepy or less talkative, I kinda agree with Megan of CTM that it’s not the best fantasy at all, but overall I still loved it for the entertainment it brought, and the closure to the backbone of the story. I also liked the backstory of Marinus a lot, so that part of part 5 was on par with the rest of the book for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Ok, I’m interested. Maybe I’ll finally read the copy of Cloud Atlas I bought a few years ago, and then order this ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

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