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A Tighter "Cloud Atlas",
This review is from: The Bone Clocks: A Novel (Hardcover)
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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.
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Showing 1-10 of 29 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 29, 2014 11:44:35 PM PDT
Excellent review, Roger. Except I don't see much of a contradiction in our reviews, other than what you call fantasy, I call sci-fi. We have different personal favorites of his, also. And I so agree that Holly has a marvelous voice, one that makes you want to keep going with her. Bug
In reply to an earlier post on Jul 30, 2014 4:37:10 AM PDT
Thank you, Bug! The differences were small, as you suggest. But they start at the beginning, where I lead with the six-novella construct, and you explicitly say it's not that. But in truth we are both right. Roger.
Posted on Jul 30, 2014 8:42:52 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 31, 2014 3:54:43 AM PDT
I have been thinking more about the last part of the book, which especially appealed to me. [Excuse me being somewhat oblique in what follows; it is to avoid spoilers.] As is the case in several earlier sections, it places a strong emphasis on family. There are two children in the foreground: one is a girl whose parentage we know; the other is a boy of a different ethnicity, whom we later discover to have been adopted. Why, I wonder, did Mitchell give himself this complication, when the plot could have worked almost as well with two blood siblings, or even just one?
In fact, it does contribute to the action of the last few pages, but I consider this a minor reason. The major one, I think, is that the whole book is about rescue missions and metaphorical lifeboats -- people doing unexpected things to help others -- as contrasted with its opposite, people taking advantage of others. That is essentially the difference between the two main supernatural forces in the novel, but it works in everyday terms too. [One example is Ed Brubeck, who goes out of his way to help Holly in the first section, only to find himself in a dilemma later on, when his involvement in the plights of others pulls him in a conflicting direction.] But in general, there is a spirit of simple generosity in so much of the book that makes me like it even more on reflection, and most certainly respect its author.
Posted on Aug 3, 2014 3:42:22 AM PDT
Friederike Knabe says:
Roger, very enticing review! It sounds like a must read for me. Friederike
Posted on Aug 6, 2014 12:49:39 PM PDT
Jill I. Shtulman says:
Roger, I needed an incentive to go back to Bone Clocks after the paranormal appeared, and your review IS the incentive. I'm not sure how I'll deal with the fifth part, but it seems that there's enough more realistic "meat" to keep going.
In reply to an earlier post on Aug 6, 2014 1:38:16 PM PDT
Thank you both, Friderike and Jill. I find it curious, because in no way part of my design, that several of the books I have read since this -- the Wolitzer, the Weldon, and the Howard Norman I am on at present -- have also had a strong supernatural element, handled in different ways, some better than others. This is probably the best. Roger.
Posted on Aug 12, 2014 5:20:56 AM PDT
Benny Profane says:
Roger - great review, made me want to read it, till I saw you got a Vine copy and it's not available yet! I'll be waiting impatiently I suppose.
Put in a good word for me with the Vine people! Do they need flags reviewed?
In reply to an earlier post on Aug 12, 2014 6:19:31 AM PDT
Benny, thank you very much for this. I think the only secret to Vine is to write a lot of reviews... and have nice people like you come along and say they liked them! Roger.
Posted on Aug 14, 2014 7:38:04 PM PDT
Thomas F. Dillingham says:
Hi, Roger--you got here well ahead of me. I had not read your review (nor any others), which may be obvious if you bother with my much less thoughtful offering. As you will see, I do not share some of your enthusiasm, though I certainly agree that the recurring theme of generosity and self-sacrifice is a powerful one and contributes especially to the emotional punch of the final scenes. In general, I have much more patience with science fiction (and a dab more patience with fantasy) than you express, but such works have to challenge in ways that I just did not find Mitchell managing--I think of Mieville's amazing Embassytown or City in the City, or the recent Ancillary Justice, by Anne Leckie. Anyway, as always, your review challenges my narrow thinking to broaden a bit. But I am still suspicious of Mitchell.
In reply to an earlier post on Aug 15, 2014 3:47:19 AM PDT
I realli enjoyed CITY IN THE CITY, Tom, but in general SF is not my favorite genre. Yet Mitchell is a master of most genres, and a mighty good storyteller, especially as a creator of character, and that carries one through. Roger.