Six connected novellas: sound familiar? It was what David Mitchell did in CLOUD ATLAS, and what (for a while at least) it looks like he is doing here. In the earlier book, he gave us the first part of six different stories, ranging from the nineteenth century to the post-apocalyptic future, then reversed the process to give us the six conclusions in the opposite order. There were titillating connections between the stories, but each stood largely on its own, with different characters and exemplifying different genres. Whatever else Mitchell may be, he is a superb storyteller, and the hundred-page length seems ideal for him. I am not sure that the book entirely worked as a whole, but it was a fascinating reading experience.
His latest novel, though, DOES work. It seems to have been constructed on much the same principles. Once again, there are six 100-page sections, moving forward in time, each apparently with a different protagonist. The first, in 1984, introduces us to Holly Skyes, a 15-year-old runaway, leaving her home in North Kent after a row with her mother and a betrayal by her boyfriend. Holly is a plucky character with a marvelous voice; we have her in our hearts as she discovers the difficulties of life on the run as well as surprising acts of kindness. The second part, in 1991, has another protagonist, Hugo Lamb, a Cambridge undergraduate with a shady secret life, but the charm to carry it off. Holly reappears as a minor character at the end of his story too. Indeed, she will return in the next part, featuring an award-winning Iraq War journalist in 2004, and the one after that, in 2015, whose dubious hero is an egocentric once-famous novelist. [Why is it that, when writing about other members of their profession, authors turn to this kind of incestuous comedy? Here, and only here, I felt my interest wearing thin.]
But the connections between the novellas are more pervasive than just the presence of Holly (who emerges as the undisputed heroine overall). Mitchell keeps on inserting sly references to his previous books, for instance in the name of a restaurant or a peripheral character, giving the sense that everything is connected in unseen ways. As though there were a layer beyond the one we see. And indeed we begin to catch brief glimpses of something paranormal, something inexplicable in everyday terms. Normally I am no fan of fantasy, but Mitchell held me from the start because, in each of these first four stories, the supernatural elements were no more than 5-10% of the whole, embedded in realistic writing peopled with characters who always engaged my interest.
With the fifth (and longest) part, though, everything changes. Set in 2024, this is outright fantasy adventure, the kind of thing Tolkien might have written if he had read a little Dan Brown or Stephen King and, determined to outdo them, had moved from his customary Middle Earth to Manhattan and thence to the Swiss Alps. The various supernormal figures we have glimpsed in the wings now take center stage as they prepare for a cataclysmic conflict. Not generally my thing at all, but I was held spellbound, largely because Mitchell's storytelling does not become any less textured and nuanced when writing about a world beyond our normal experience.
All the same, I was glad to get back to the humanity and simplicity of the last section, which is just about as straightforward as could be. Set in the southwest of Ireland in 2043, it is a vision of a rapidly collapsing future that is ecologically, politically, and socially all too believable. I had found the futuristic sections of CLOUD ATLAS hard to get into because they lacked sufficient connection to the world I knew. But here are characters we have come to care about, coping with the coming Endarkenment as best they know how, by keeping the fox out of the chicken run and caring for family and neighbors.
It must be something in the Zeitgeist, for there have been a number of big novels recently that have combined meticulous realism with some kind of otherworldly element. You could think of William Boyd's WAITING FOR SUNRISE, Kate Atkinson's LIFE AFTER LIFE, Marisha Pessl's NIGHT FILM, or (writing of a different century) Eleanor Catton's THE LUMINARIES. I have not liked all of these equally well, especially where I felt the non-realistic aspects eroding my sympathies. But Mitchell is brilliant here in the restraint with which he introduces them. And he is inspired in allowing his long and complex novel to come back to earth with those qualities that really matter: love, character, and the simple business of living.
on August 20, 2014
With David Mitchell, it's never a case of will he be good enough to deliver, it's a case of will his talent get in his delivery's way. Meaning: Sometimes, when you are so effortlessly fluent and creative and imaginative, you can get lulled by your own writerly voice and go off on these long Huck Finn-like raft trips down tributaries of the Narrative Mississippi.
Does this happen with THE BONE CLOCKS, Mitchell's latest foray into fantasy? To an extent, yes. And do we forgive him his excesses like we would a favorite yet incorrigible son's? To an even greater extent, yes again. The book's first section, "A Hot Spell," leaps out of the starting blocks with an irresistibly beguiling lead, one Holly Sykes, and after the first 100 pages you feel like Holly's adventures with "the Radio People" and her brushes with paranormal beings will be the fastest read you've picked up in many a year.
Not quite. From here, in typical Mitchell fashion, we meet different lead characters in different sections marching forward in time -- sections where Holly surfaces to various degrees of importance -- and the new characters are not always as intriguing as Holly. Mitchell also finds side-narratives, like an extended one into Iraq where he can share his opinions about that war, George Bush, Tony Blair, etc., irresistible. Meanwhile, a fantasy is trying to be born and experiencing a prolonged labor. Will the baby be blue when it's finally delivered? That is the question as Mitchell stretches out the tease so deftly set during the fast start and the reader keeps saying, "Yes! I love the idea of a battle to the finish between two groups of warring paranormal beings with Holly in the middle, so take me there! Quickly! Let's go!"
Not so fast. Mitchell WILL get there in the penultimate section and it WILL be most satisfying, but he'll do it in his own desultory fashion. Meanwhile, with the plot on the back burner through the sizable middle parts, the reader is left to appreciate Mitchell's considerable writing talents. So yes, the 620 pages could use an editor but, unlike with beginning writers, the cutting room floor would not exactly be strewn with expendable prose if you took the shears to Mitchell's latest. In the end, despite having the climax before the last section and despite padding the book with a last 75 pages of "denouement," the reader sighs, shakes his head, forgives, and says, "Well done, David. Bravo! You may go overboard, but your brand of overboard is still more fun than many another current writer's precision-cut efforts, so there."
Overall, then, a fantasy that tries and then comforts your patience. The plot will reward, you just have to take the long and winding road and enjoy the journey. If you're a Mitchell fan, you'll even be rewarded with cameos by past characters from previous books. Such are the indulgences a talent like Mitchell can take. Such are the indulgences a genre like fantasy allow. Eureka, as they used to say. I have found another good, if not great, David Mitchell book!
on September 2, 2014
Having received an advance copy of this new book, I was actually quite surprised when I read all the rave reviews from critics. I am a huge David Mitchell fan, especially of Cloud Atlas, which I believe will be read 50 years from now the way James Joyce is read at present.
This book is no Cloud Atlas. The first section has a wonderful voice in the protagonist of Holly, and the last section has an amazing narrative of a post climate change future. In between, Mitchell creates a cosmology of warring psychological factions possessing hosts, and a struggling writer doing something or not doing something as his career ages, that each lack real coherence or meaning for me. Also, while the final future setting is intriguing, the steps leading up to it demonstrate no subtleties of science fiction.
As a writer, my feeling is this book suffered mightily from a lack of an editor who could speak truth to a powerful literary voice, because middle portions of this book failed to deliver the goods.
on September 23, 2014
While compulsively readable with moments of brilliance, "The Bone Clocks" is ultimately done in by the author's weak plotting. The book starts out strong with the two best sections of the book: teen-aged Holly and university-aged Hugo. I'd encourage people to read these 200-odd pages and then throw the rest of the book away. The Iraq war correspondent's section reads like someone read "Imperial Life in the Emerald City" and banged out a plausible story with no surprises or anything new to say. (Mitchell does indeed credit "Imperial Life" in his acknowledgments.) The dreaded author character gets an extended time on stage, reminding us what happens when authors become too famous and stuck on the festival circuit and have to draw their fiction from their newly circumscribed life experiences.
The fantasy elements simply don't work. There are no rules, just sentences about psychodumdum bullets and psychic violence. Ooo-kay. Psychobattles are not very interesting to read about when the villains have no depth and the action is taking place in an invisible dimension.
And finally, Mitchell appends his own "Scouring of the Shire"-type final section, in which he completely destroys all the moral stakes that had propelled the first 500 pages along. We have suspended our disbelief and joined the heroes on a costly quest to save four innocent children per year who would otherwise be murdered. Yet, in the final 100 pages we learn that society has collapsed and millions or billions have already or will soon join those precious four victims in the next world. It kind of makes you wonder why we bothered. Mitchell cheekily calls his ending a Deus ex Machina and then gives it to us. Sadly, by then the charm had long worn out.
Make no mistake, Mitchell is often brilliant, but he is ill-served by the fantasy superstructure of this novel.
David Mitchell's latest novel sits somewhere between Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green. It is broken into distinct chapters, each covering one POV character and progressing about a decade between each. Throughout,it combines the mundane and the magical, immersing the reader in the personality of the character and their environment even when that environment turns jarringly unreal. At the center is Holly Sykes, who starts the novel as runaway teenager and plays a pivotal role in the lives of the central character in each of the following chapters.
It is the vividness of each character that really brings this book to life. They are captured so well that the slowly unfolding plot arc that ties them together is secondary. The arc does eventually take precedence in the last third of the book, but the structure of the novel is such that it doesn't lose steam but merely transitions in nature to more of a romp.
What I love about David Mitchell's books is that he has this fantastic ability to write characters and can then take them and put them in a great adventure story. Here, the story embraces all sorts of magical and sci-fi elements. Its something that I personally love and its great to see such great writing in what could be considered genre fiction if it came from a different author or imprint.
Not surprisingly, readers of Mitchell's past books will note many recurring names and hints to past books, however, unlike the past fleeting references, a few of the connections here are substantive enough to merit a reread.
In summary, this is a great read in every way. It's my favorite of David Mitchell's books so far. Very highly recommended
on November 14, 2014
I enjoyed both the Cloud Atlas and the Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, so I was anticipating Mitchell's new book with pleasure. 90% of the book is classic Mitchell: taut prose, viewpoint shifting, a preternatural ability to speak in the voices of others, and hints of a global mystery.
The problem is the climax and denouement. Mitchell's action scenes are uninspired, and nothing ruins the mysterious like seeing it in the light of day. He explains the mystery in far too much detail and it ends up being quite dull. Then, after closing the climactic chapter with one final question, the last section of the book is an awful, insipid, clichéd, masturbatory screed on the downfall of modern society, with all of the classic post-apocalyptic tropes: a shift in global power, nuclear disaster, reversion to bartering, militias, fractured government and society, etc. This entire section of the book adds nothing to our understanding of the characters we've come to love, and feels like filler to make us wait for the answer to the question left hanging from the climax.
I'm a completionist, but I would have rather not read that chapter and imagined the book ended after the climax. It completely ruined my opinion of the book, and makes me wary of Mitchell's future work.
on October 1, 2014
I am a big fan of David Mitchell and have read all of his books, so I was really looking forward to the Bone Clocks. Unfortunately this time I was disappointed. The book starts strongly and grabs you from the start, however it does not live up to its potential and fizzles out as time goes on. The book is quite long, which in itself is not a problem, but the plot is very convoluted and there are too many characters that do not get fully explored, while others show up only to disappear just as you started to get interested in them. In addition, I feel that readers who have not read his other books may be at a disadvantage here, as some of his major characters have come through from other books. Finally, I was left with the distinct impression that this book was written with the idea of selling movie rights on it. There is a very "Harry Potter" like battle scene near the end of the book that is quite unbelievable and more geared to a younger audience.
on September 15, 2014
Cloud Atlas let me down in a big way, but it had such potential that I decided to give The Bone Clocks a try. Mild spoilers ahead since it's hard to review this book without them.
The book-within-a-book structure is back; fortunately, they are more directly connected to each other than they were in Cloud Atlas. In order, they are narrated by Holly Sykes, Hugo Lamb, Crispin Hershey, Ed Brubeck, Marinus, and Holly again. In a nutshell, the book chronicles the role of an average British woman in a war between immortals with psychic powers. Holly is a reluctant psychic herself, and a kindly Dr. Marinus cures her affliction of hearing voices she calls "the radio people" when she is young. However, when she runs away at age 15, her psychic potential causes her to get caught in a battle between good and evil. This day is also the day when she loses her little brother forever, but it's not until the penultimate section of the book that the mystery is revealed. So, each novella chronicles the story of a different narrator whose life overlaps, to some degree, with Holly's. Crispin's and Ed's sections are almost entirely pointless as to the larger plot. The final novella was amazing- truly some of the best science fiction I ever read, but it's really a different story entirely that just so happens to involve Holly. It would have been equally poignant with characters we never met before, and one deus ex machina is easily substituted by another. Mitchell is a gifted writer with brilliant ideas and fully realized characters, but the way he can ramble on about the minutiae of a character's mundane life for dozens of pages without moving the plot forward is annoying. All in all, what could have been one of the best books I've ever read is instead just "pretty good", making it disappointing but not a total waste of time. Recommended with reservations.
on September 13, 2014
This started so well with the first chapter or story of Holly in 1984. The character was real, funny, alive, compelling and her story as a 15 year old was propelled into the stratosphere by the element of the "alternative" world existence. It left me thrilled. The second story showed similar potential. But by the 3rd, so much has been lost, not just the vitality of Holly but the live, moment-by-moment of the story. It becomes didactic, rambling on and on about Baghdad. The "alternative" fantasy element almost disappears entirely. Its preachy and self-conscious and goes right up the backside of the writer. He tops this by making the next two chapters about bitter writers. Its like he started with a fantastic idea but once he'd written the initial two chapters down, got lost, allowed himself to indulge in diversions of vanity and I don't know what - someone else on here used the word "pomposity" and I think that's right. What this is, is a book with tremendous, thrilling potential which fails, quite quickly, to deliver. HUGE disappointment. I shall donate it to my local library where there are only 7 copies and 59 people on the wait list to read it. At least if they borrow it they won't have wasted any money like I have.
on December 10, 2014
The catchy title and rapid rise on the best seller list caught my attention so I bought the book. The book immediately grabbed my attention with the story of Holly Sykes running away from home, some paranormal events, and the disappearance of her brother jacko. The book then proceeds to the story of a group of obnoxious Cambridge students on Christmas break and how two groups of immortals, the anchorites, and the horologists battle each other. At this point, new characters began to be introduced very rapidly and the paranormal and supernatural activity increased to a point where I totally lost interest and felt the effort and struggle to finish this lengthy (640 page) novel was not worthwhile. This is extremely rare for me to abandon a book at the 75% mark, but I was just not enjoying it. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more and finished if I had read other David Mitchell books and had more familiarity with some of his characters.