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The Bone Clocks: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 2, 2014
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, September 2014: Fans of David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet) have been salivating over the release of The Bone Clocks —and they have every reason to. This is a feast of a book—perhaps the author’s best to date—a saga that spans decades, characters, genres, and events from Mitchell's other novels. The structure is most similar to Cloud Atlas, with The Bone Clocks pivoting around a central character: Holly Sykes. Each chapter/novella is narrated from the perspective of an intersecting character, with settings ranging from England in the 80s to the apocalyptic future. Each story could stand alone as a work of genius, as they slowly build on Holly’s unwitting role in a war between two groups with psychic powers, culminating in a thrilling showdown reminiscent of the best of Stephen King. Taken together this is a hugely entertaining page-turner, an operatic fantasy, and an often heartbreaking meditation on mortality. It’s not to be missed. – Matt Kaye
“One of the most entertaining and thrilling novels I’ve read in a long time.”—Meg Wolitzer, NPR
“Astonishing . . . No one, clearly, has ever told [David] Mitchell that the novel is dead. He writes with a furious intensity and slapped-awake vitality, with a delight in language and all the rabbit holes of experience. . . . In his sixth novel, he’s brought together the time-capsule density of his eyes-wide-open adventure in traditional realism with the death-defying ambitions of Cloud Atlasuntil all borders between pubby England and the machinations of the undead begin to blur. . . . Not many novelists could take on plausible Aboriginal speech, imagine a world after climate change has ravaged it and wonder whether whales suffer from unrequited love. . . . Very few [writers] excite the reader about both the visceral world and the visionary one as Mitchell does.”—The New York Times Book Review (Editor’s Choice)
“Intensely compelling . . . fantastically witty . . . offers up a rich selection of domestic realism, gothic fantasy and apocalyptic speculation.”—The Washington Post
“Sprawling yet disciplined, drunk on life but ever cognizant of its brevity and preciousness, this time-traveling, culture-crossing, genre-bending marvel of a novel by the highly regarded author of Cloud Atlas utterly beguiles.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“Great fun . . . a tour de force . . . [Mitchell] channels his narrators with vivid expertise.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Mitchell is one of the most electric writers alive. To open a Mitchell book is to set forth on an adventure. . . . In his latest novel, The Bone Clocks, Mitchell has spun his most far-flung tale yet. . . . Strange and magical.”—The Boston Globe
“Magical . . . [The Bone Clocks] perfectly illustrates the idea that we’re all the heroes of our own lives as well as single cogs in a much larger and more beautiful mechanism. [Grade:] A”—Entertainment Weekly
“Transportingly great . . . If David Mitchell isn’t the most talented novelist of his generation, is there any doubt that he is the most multi-talented? He is, at his best, a superior writer to Jonathan Franzen, a better storyteller than Michael Chabon, more wickedly clever than Jennifer Egan, nearly as fluent as Junot Díaz in multiple dialects, and as gifted as Alice Munro. . . . The Bone Clocks affords its readers the singular gift of reading—the wish to stay put and to be nowhere else but here.”—The Atlantic
“Mitchell’s mesmerizing saga is evidence of the power of story to transport us, and even to stop time entirely.”—Vanity Fair
“[A] literary marvel . . . What we value defines us, The Bone Clocks tells us. Sometimes it’s life. Sometimes it’s love. It’s definitely this book.”—The Miami Herald
“Mitchell’s wit, imagination and gorgeous prose make this a page-turner.”—People
“Mind-bendingly ambitious . . . The force of [Mitchell’s] storytelling makes The Bone Clocks a joy.”—Time
“A tour de force of the imagination, rewarding the attentive reader with both the intricate richness of its plot and the beauty of its language.”—The Plain Dealer
“Told with the skill and nuance of a gifted ventriloquist.”—USA Today
“Mitchell rises to meet and match the legacy of Cloud Atlas.”—Los Angeles Times
“Reading a David Mitchell novel is a little like wandering through a multiplex during that September sweet spot when the best summer blockbusters are screened alongside autumn’s more serious fare. The Bone Clocks is no exception. Mitchell’s generous imagination saturates every sentence, character, and setting to create a story as thrilling in its language as in its plot. It’s my favorite novel I’ve read this year, and the only one I’ve already reread.”—Anthony Marra
“Great story, great words, all good.”—Stephen King
“A hell of a great read . . . wild, funny, terrifying . . . a slipstream masterpiece all its own . . . Mitchell is a genre-bending, time-leaping, world-traveling, puzzle-making, literary magician, and The Bone Clocks is one of his best books.”—Esquire
“Mitchell is a superb storyteller. . . . One of the reasons he is such a popular and critically lauded writer is that he combines both the giddy, freewheeling ceaselessness of the pure storyteller with the grounded realism of the humanist. There’s something for everyone, traditionalist or postmodernist, realist or fantasist.”—The New Yorker
“Relentlessly brilliant . . . [The Bone Clocks contains] depth and darkness, bravely concealed with all the wit and sleight of hand and ventriloquistic verbiage and tale-telling bravura of which Mitchell is a master.”—Ursula K. Le Guin, The Guardian
“You could call Mitchell a global writer, I suppose, but that does not quite capture what he is doing. It is closer to say that he is a pangaeic writer, a supercontinental writer.”—New York
“With The Bone Clocks [Mitchell] has brought off his most sinewy, fine and full book to date, a Möbius strip–tripping great novel that will reward bleary-eyed rereading until he writes his next one.”—Financial Times
“Dazzling . . . Mitchell’s heavy arsenal of talents is showcased in these pages: his symphonic imagination; his ventriloquist’s ability to channel the voices of myriad characters from different time zones and cultures; his intuitive understanding of children and knack for capturing their solemnity and humor; and his ear for language—its rhythms, sounds and inflections.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“As you might expect from a David Mitchell novel, [The Bone Clocks is] big, ambitious, and pretty. But it’s very much the story of one woman: Holly Sykes. Her tiny human life is the thread that holds the various stories of The Bone Clocks together, and ultimately it is what gives the book a deep sense of meaning, and its lasting joys and sorrows.”—The Millions
“[The Bone Clocks] might just become the 1984 of the climate change movement. It dramatizes the consequences of our improvident modern economy in the way George Orwell’s novel awakened people to the ‘Big Brother’ mentality of Soviet communism.”—David Ignatius, The Washington Post
“[The Bone Clocks] enthralls, soars, and crackles.”—The Daily Beast
“Mitchell is back and as genre-bendy as ever. Describing the breadth of his latest epic as ‘sprawling’ wouldn’t quite do it justice.”—The Huffington Post
“Deeply meaningful . . . The Bone Clocks has everything you might expect to find in a David Mitchell novel: Great characters in settings far-flung over space and time, all tied together by ambitious ideas and gorgeous writing.”—BuzzFeed
“Mitchell may be the greatest novelist in the English language currently in his prime.”—The A.V. Club
“A fascinating and moving book about time, technology and even the ‘State of the World.’”—The Dallas Morning News
“Mitchell is a brilliant literary mesmerist. . . . He writes with scintillating verve and abundance. . . . [Mitchell’s is a] joyful, consoling world.”—The Telegraph
“A fantastic, perilous journey over continents and decades. Fans of Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas will find this equally ambitious and mind-bending.”—Marie Claire
“[A] beautiful explosion of adventurous ideas . . . As [Mitchell’s] oeuvre develops, he seems to be getting cleverer, braver and delightfully madder.”—The Times
“Fantastical, ambitious, bold and exuberant.”—The Observer
“A sweeping epic . . . that, like Cloud Atlas, spans the ages and tinkers with the hidden gears of human history.”—GQ
“A cautionary metaphysical thriller that grounds its ambition in its heroine’s human charm.”—Vogue
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Top Customer Reviews
So, the superficial similarities. 'The Bone Clocks' has multiple viewpoint characters and large gaps in the narrative that allow the story to have a long span (from the mid-1980's to the mid 2040's). The various threads of the story, which seem unconnected or tenuously connected on their faces, are ultimately tied together. The novel mixes mainstream 'literary' quality writing with fantastic/science fictional elements. And that is where the similarities end.
'The Bone Clocks' does give David Mitchell the opportunity to display his virtuosity at writing in a wide range of voices. However, unlike 'Cloud Atlas', Mitchell's gift for pastiche does not come into play; the style of writing and the method of storytelling across the various sections of the novel is quite uniform. I would even say that the variation in the voices of the characters is not nearly so great as in 'Cloud Atlas.' Although the teenage Holly Sykes of the novel's opening section has a strong voice of her own, most of the other viewpoint characters differ only in their level of snarkiness and the grayness of their morality. 'The Bone Clocks' is also much more straightforwardly (and, I suppose, disappointingly) constructed as a simple story. The connections between the various stories in 'Cloud Atlas' were mostly subtle and thematic in ways that I thought were dazzling and brilliant. In 'The Bone Clocks,' the connections are straightforward plot elements (i.e., Character A shows up in a later section as a bad guy, Character B shows up later and helps Character C because she helped him earlier, etc.).
Having completed the comparison to 'Cloud Atlas,' now I'll turn to the question that any review should answer, which is "So...is it a good book?" Parts of it are. I felt like the 'mundane' parts of the story (by which I mean the parts of the story that dealt with non-fantasy events) were well-written and quite interesting. The fantasy elements of the story really didn't work. Early in the novel, the fantasy elements are sprinkled in lightly here and there, with a lot of mystery, and they don't interfere much with the 'mundane' storyline. About 2/3 of the way through the novel, the fantasy storyline takes center stage, and the curtain is pulled back to reveal that storyline in great detail. Unfortunately, it turns out that it's not a terribly interesting or original storyline, and this section is filled with clunky, extended exposition and story-specific jargon (like 'scansion' and 'suasion,' not to mention 'psychovoltage,' 'psychosoteric,' and a whole slew of other words with 'psycho' glued to the front of them). The characters in the fantasy storyline are, for the most part, weak. They are either good guys that are strangely bland and seem to exist only in the context of being good guys, or they are bad guys who (with one or two exceptions) are just 'bwahaha' evil. Once that storyline is wrapped up, the reader is jolted back to the 'mundane' storyline for an extended denouement.
Mitchell also intrudes on the storyline with some unwelcome political/cultural pontification (criticism of the Bush administration for the Iraq war, criticism of consumer culture and environmental insensitivity, and criticism of narrowminded Christians). Even though I'm on the same page with a lot of what was being said there, I felt some of the rants detracted from the flow of the story. And finally, Mitchell gets a little too cute with portions of the story, such as where the section where the viewpoint character is a novelist who is criticized for (among other things) writing a novel where the main character is a novelist. It just feels like Mitchell is poking at you saying, "See what I did there? Eh? Eh?"
Overall, I would say even a disappointing novel from David Mitchell is better written than the best efforts of a lot of other writers, so even though I found a lot to dislike in 'The Bone Clocks,' it's still an okay read and parts of it are quite good. But it has some major flaws, and they detract from what could have been a much better novel.
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.