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.