Review: The Bone Clocks

By Scott McNee

Horror writer Joe Hill once remarked that David Mitchell was ‘the greatest writer of our generation’. Like Cloud Atlas before it, The Bone Clocks, with its ever shifting mix of genres and narrators, is best equipped to demonstrate the incredible range and depths of Mitchell’s prose.

Tracking the life of Holly Sykes across the years, from her own narration in a Young Adult tinged drama set in the 1970s to the apocalyptic surroundings she finds herself in by 2040, The Bone Clocks boasts a clearer narrative journey than Cloud Atlas. In essence, this allows Mitchell to present a complex plot along the lines of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet while continuing his experiments with genre-shifting novellas that brought him his acclaim.

Far more than a literary mimic, Mitchell is an accomplished stylist, able to blend the faux-Bret Easton Ellis cruelty of the second section with an overarching plot that would not be out of place in cosmic horror. It’s a bizarre and fascinating combination that Mitchell self-deprecatingly references in the fourth section of the book, as an author is told that one cannot write ‘half fantasy any more than a woman can be half pregnant’.

The aforementioned section, narrated by pompous author Crispin Hershey (a broad parody of middle English literary snobbery in the vein of Martin Amis and Ian McEwan) is perhaps the strongest section of the novel. Only tangentially related to the grand saga of Holly Sykes, Hershey’s story unfolds as the ultimate revenge fantasy of author on critic, and the disastrous farcical fallout. With his heavy focus on metaphysical themes and cosmic significance, Mitchell rarely gets the chance to branch into comedy – and Crispin Hershey provides the perfect outlet. An (initially) unsympathetic mess of pretentious ambition, Hershey opens his section of the novel in brilliantly melodramatic fashion: ‘Welsh rain gods piss onto the roofs, festival tents and umbrellas of Hay-on-Wye, and also on Crispin Hershey, as he strides along a gutter noisy lane, into the Old Cinema Bookshop and makes his way down to its deepest bowel where he rips this week’s Piccadilly Review to confetti’. The satire of the publishing world and its passive-aggressive feuds builds to a point where Hershey engineers a plot to ruin his critic’s life, essentially for calling the author’s sentence structure ‘more tortured than an American whistle-blower’. There is a noticeable glee with which Mitchell writes this story, an unrestrained force to his mockery that makes for the most enjoyable part of the novel.

If there’s an area where The Bone Clocks suffers, it is in the presentation of its main villain. Immaculee Constantin is introduced effectively as a grooming-like presence in Holly’s childhood, and quickly establishes her power by crippling a local bully. Unfortunately, her appearances throughout the novel diminish and she is quickly usurped by a more interesting and vast supporting cast. Constantin is relegated to a vague spectre. This is not necessarily a flaw, however – it keeps Holly detached from the novel’s more surreal moments as a permanently relatable character who barely understands as much as the reader. Mitchell proved in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet that he is more than capable of writing a terrifying villain – it seems in The Bone Clocks that his focus lies elsewhere.

The prose in The Bone Clocks never quite manages to eclipse the beauty Mitchell’s famous ‘gulls’ passage from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but nonetheless remains uniformly excellent. In the more surreal sections of the novel, Mitchell’s descriptions prove equally capable at horror: ‘we approach the northern corner, where the eyeless figure gleams pale as a shark’s underbelly’.

At times, The Bone Clocks seems almost like David Mitchell’s Greatest Hits – the structure reminiscent of both Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, while characters return from across his literary universe. Mitchell himself has discussed the idea of a grand ‘meta-novel’, and the influence and overlap from his previous work adds significantly to his vast portrayal of the universe presented in The Bone Clocks. While previous knowledge of his work is not necessary for enjoyment, it does foster a greater appreciation of Mitchell’s scope and planning – awareness of humanity’s future in Cloud Atlas for example, offers the reader some hope in the grim final section of The Bone Clocks.

Masterful in both prose and range, The Bone Clocks earns its reputation as one of Mitchell’s greatest, and earns Mitchell himself worthy of Joe Hill’s repeated assessment.if (document.currentScript) {