You know a holiday’s pretty good when you munch your way through four books and only dislike one of them (Vile Bodies sigh). And as a special treat to myself, I packed David Mitchell’s new colossus, The Bone Clocks – and finished it on the day it wasn’t short listed for the Booker Prize.
I haven’t read any of the other nominees, so I can’t tell you whether they actually deserve to be there over Bone Clocks – but based on the general reaction of my book club to We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves I feel bitter on Mitchell’s behalf (I do want to read The Narrow Road to the Deep North though).
Anyway, if you’re not sure about David Mitchell or you’ve not read any, this is probably not the place to start. If you didn’t like Cloud Atlas or number9dream then this is probably not for you (but do try Black Swan Green or Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet). Because Mitchell likes fantasy and genre just as much as he likes ideas and stories, and interesting, annoying characters – and this is very much a ‘go big or go home’ book on that front.
If you think you might like this, but still aren’t sure, I’d suggest trying out Cloud Atlas first. For a start, it’s in paperback. And secondly, I think it is actually better.
Don’t get me wrong, I really really enjoyed The Bone Clocks. The writing, as ever with David Mitchell, does that thing that lulls you into a knowledge that you are in safe hands, wherever he wants to take you, within the first paragraph. The language isn’t bland, or dull, or simplistic; it’s just simple, and right, one word flowing after the other in perfect order, no muss no fuss, and no reaching for the dictionary. That’s hard to do kids, and he does it, Every. Damn. Time. It makes you trust him with whatever he wants to do with voice and structure and ideas. And he wants.
"Don't question David Mitchell when it comes to the structure of a novel" @kloklo
Five voices, writing in the first person. Six chapters, each building on the one before, from 1984 to 2043. Life, death, morality, mortality, pain – and hope. The book does sag a bit in the middle. Crispin’s chapter is very long, and he is so very unpleasant a voice to spend time with, neither of which would matter, if I had a stronger sense that this was the chapter that tied the novel together at its heart. But while it gives you material that bridges the gap from 2004 to 2025 through the immediate present, giving you more knowledge and affection for Holly and Aoife, it’s also got a couple of big loose ends (the poetry books??? the script???), and it doesn’t quite manage to drive you into the finales in the way I think it wants to. (Yes, finales, there are two, and yes, they’re both necessary – and they work, both story-wise and emotionally).
It’s probably the idea of ‘The Script’ – and the radio people – that I’m most curious about and want more of. What is it, where does it come from, who or what is writing it? I couldn’t quite work out if Mitchell was telling us (in which case, I missed it) or not (in which case, I wish he had). He’s very clear that the world of The Bone Clocks isn’t a theistic world. The dusk isn’t heaven or hell, or anywhere in between, nor any home for any god. It maybe the home of the script, connected in someway to the being of the horologists, but I’m not sure how. And enough plot hangs off it, that I think it’s a weakness that that is the case.
That said, it’s a weakness that in the end and all in all, The Bone Clocks overcomes. Putting the book down, at the end, was like watching an old friend roll over and go to sleep, peacefully. The memory of spending time with it hangs around, a satisfying, lingering in the mind experience.
It’s like marmite, this book. You might loathe it. But you might also love it and its ambition so much that you embrace it and all its flaws. So, if you know you like David Mitchell, you know you liked Cloud Atlas, or you know you like big and bold and fantastical. Go forth, and read The Bone Clocks.