Saturday, January 12, 2019

Birthday Review: The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell (Random House, 978-1-4000-6567-7, $30, hc, 624 pages) September 2014

A review by Rich Horton

[On the occasion of David Mitchell's 50th birthday, here's a repost of a review I did for Locus back in 2014 of The Bone Clocks.]

David Mitchell is a writer unconcerned with genre boundaries. Many SF readers are familiar with his wonderful 2004 novel Cloud Atlas (or with the ambitious film made of it), which has sections extending into the far future. My favorite of his novels is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010), an historical novel (with slight fantastical elements) set in Japan at the turn of the 19th Century. And his new novel, The Bone Clocks, is again SF/Fantasy, with sections set in the medium near future, and with a central fantastical element concerning battling immortals. Does it all work?

The book is organized as six long sections, all featuring an Englishwoman, Holly Sykes, as a significant character (and indeed as the viewpoint character of the first and last parts). We meet Holly first in 1984, when she is 15 and mad at her mother and in love with a 24 year old man (who has made her pregnant, though she doesn't know that yet). Holly also has a bit of a psychological history: as a child she heard voices. And her young brother is precocious and quite strange. She runs away from home to shack up with her boyfriend, only to find that he’s cheating on her with one of her best friends, so she runs away again, making several significant connections: with Ed Brubeck, a lonely boy in her class whom has been shunned as a newcomer; with a strange old woman who makes a curious request; and with a radical couple. She encounters shocking violence, and learns a sort of independence, before Ed finds her with the terrible news that her brother has disappeared.

That sets the stage – quite mysteriously – for the rest of the novel. The succeeding sections each leap forward a decade or so, and are told from different points of view: First comes Hugo Lamb, a charismatic but psychopathic Cambridge student who almost falls in love with Holly (one gathers she might have been his redemption) before being recruited into a group of immortals, the Anchorites. Then Ed Brubeck, now a journalist in Iraq, married to Holly and with a young daughter but unable to give up the thrill of war correspondence. Then Crispin Hershey, a successful novelist (who seems made up of 75% Martin Amis, 10% David Mitchell, and the rest invented) whose career seems in the dumps after a vicious review, after which he takes horrible revenge on a critic, while crossing paths with Holly, who has become a bestselling writer after a memoir about the voices she hears when a child (again, Holly becomes a redemptive factor in Crispin’s life). And finally a Canadian doctor who treated Holly for cancer, but who also turns out to be a member of more benevolent group of immortals, the Horologists, who are engaged in a long battle with the Anchorites. This section at last gives us a potted history of the long battle, leading a climactic battle between the warring immortal sects. The final section is set in Holly’s old age, as she is trying to raise two grandchildren (one of them chance adopted) in an Ireland descending (with the most of the rest of Western society) into chaos after a mini-Apocalypse due to global warming and accompanying superstorms.

There’s a lot going on here, obviously. At one level it’s a sort of life story of a rather remarkable woman (too remarkable, in some ways: both Holly’s near sainthood and her sudden literary success seemed implausible to me: I believed her rebellious teenaged avatar rather more than her later selves). At another level it’s an impressive travelogue, with interesting scenes in England, Ireland, Switzerland, Australia both in the near future and distant past, 19th Century Russia, Japan, Canada, the US, and Iceland. At a third level it’s an SF novel with a political subtext, showing our present day sins leading to a climate-change induced disaster, and on this level it’s pretty impressive, particularly in the final segment. Mitchell has a real SFnal imagination – he’s not at all the slumming mainstream writer lazily borrowing SF tropes that SF readers so often complain about. The novel is often comic, it is intricately and interestingly plotted, and it's impressively well-written. For regular readers of Mitchell, there are also nice but not overly intrusive links to his earlier books (including a by the by explanation for one of the stranger elements of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and mostly minor but sometimes significant characters shared with most of his previous books).

But … well, there’s a but, of course. Besides all the things I mention above, The Bone Clocks is also a fantasy novel about a centuries-long battle between two small but very powerful groups of immortals. And that part – while it is intriguing – really doesn’t quite work. It’s not so much that the fantastical elements are implausible in the extreme – though they are – I’m happy enough suspending my disbelief that far. I had two problems, though. One is the hokey magic battle at the climax, which really comes off as cliché – Harry Potter dueling with bolts from wands, that sort of thing. The other is that the battle between two small groups (one rather conveniently given the moral high ground over the other group, who come off as sneering supervillains) is elevated in importance, seems to me, above the fates of a whole world full of ordinary people. Perhaps the concluding chapter is Mitchell giving the lie to that – the victory of one group of immortals seems minor in the face of a crumbling world, all the whizbang battles seem almost silly next to Holly and her fellows' dignified work at survival – and if so that’s a fair and powerful conclusion.

I don’t want to overemphasize my issues with that aspect of things, however. The Bone Clocks remains a tremendously enjoyable novel, and a novel with enough serious heft of speculative thought, and character insight, to make it worth pondering. I’d rank it behind The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Cloud Atlas, but it’s still worth reading, and one of the best novels, SF or otherwise, of the year.

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