If there’s one book that I mention more than an other on this blog (with the obvious exception of The Cavaliers, and possibly LJ Smith’s books) it’s got to be Cloud Atlas. In various Top Ten Tuesday lists, as the prime example of my belief that the best books blur the line between literary and genre fiction, and perhaps most substantively, in this article on film adaptations, which goes into a lot of detail about why I love it so much. I’m not sure I’d say it’s my favourite book – how could anyone who truly loves reading and has genuinely varied tastes ever hope to pick just one? – but it’s definitely in my top five.
David Mitchell wrote two books before Cloud Atlas was published in 2004 (Ghostwritten and Number9Dream) and has written two other books since (Black Swan Green and the Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet). I loved Ghostwritten and I enjoyed the others enough to make me consider David Mitchell as one of my favourite authors rather than merely the author of one of my favourite books. But nothing has caught my imagination in quite the same way.
One of my new year’s resolution, going into 2012, was to review every book I read that year. Not only did I stick to it, I’ve kept it up ever since, and now have a grand total of 84 book reviews. I want to write a proper blog post on the subject soon, but somehow, knowing you’e going to write a review makes you read in a slightly different way. I was therefore very excited when The Bone Clocks was released, not only because it was the first Mitchell book in four years, but because it would be the first one I’d get the chance to review after my first reading (my recent review – 5 stars, obviously – of Cloud Atlas is here, but reviewing something after a re-read just isn’t the same).
THE BONE CLOCKS – 4 STARS
Following a scalding row with her mother, fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes slams the door on her old life. But Holly is no typical teenage runaway: a sensitive child once contacted by voices she knew only as “the radio people,” Holly is a lightning rod for psychic phenomena. Now, as she wanders deeper into the English countryside, visions and coincidences reorder her reality until they assume the aura of a nightmare brought to life.
For Holly has caught the attention of a cabal of dangerous mystics—and their enemies. But her lost weekend is merely the prelude to a shocking disappearance that leaves her family irrevocably scarred. This unsolved mystery will echo through every decade of Holly’s life, affecting all the people Holly loves—even the ones who are not yet born.
A Cambridge scholarship boy grooming himself for wealth and influence, a conflicted father who feels alive only while reporting from occupied Iraq, a middle-aged writer mourning his exile from the bestseller list—all have a part to play in this surreal, invisible war on the margins of our world. From the medieval Swiss Alps to the nineteenth-century Australian bush, from a hotel in Shanghai to a Manhattan townhouse in the near future, their stories come together in moments of everyday grace and extraordinary wonder.
One of the characters in this novel of many narrators is Crispin Hershey, an author whose books clearly owe something of a debt to Mitchell’s own. So when Crispin is constantly offended that everyone thinks his latest offerings aren’t up to the standards of his greatest literary and commercial success, it seems fair to say that it’s something that plays on Mitchell’s mind. It therefore makes me feel slightly guilty to say that if I were going to sum up this book in one sentence (which I’m not – concision was never one of my strong points) it would be: “a lot like Cloud Atlas, but not quite as good.”
There’s something about Mitchell’s way with words and way with a story that makes me enjoy everything he writes, whatever the genre and style. Cloud Atlas is one of my all time favourite novels, but I also enjoyed the relatively straightforward narrative structure of his more recent offerings, Black Swan Green and the Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Underneath all the cleverness, he’s fundamentally got a fantastic imagination and an amazing ability to tell a story.
Nonetheless, I was excited to see that here, Mitchell had returned back to the style of his earlier works and to what (I think) he does best: short stories that somehow coalesce into a complete novel, genre-bending and experiments with style, complex structures and narrative devices, and a blurring of the lines between literary and genre fiction.
That said, while you would never exactly describe the Bone Clocks as a conventional novel, it was actually rather lighter on tricksy devices than I had anticipated.
On the positive side, it felt much less like a cleverly linked combination of short stories than some of Mitchell’s books, and more like a coherent plot that happened to have several narrators and go off at a few tangents. Basically, it’s the story of Holly Syke’s life from 16 to 75, mixed with the story of an ancient battle between the Anchorites and the Horologists. In some sections, Holly was front and centre whereas in others she made little more than a cameo appearance. Similarly, some sections were basically full blown fantasy, while in others, this paranormal war was only hinted at. But the two poles of Holly and Horologists held the novel together as a coherent whole rather more effectively than comet birthmarks or ghosts really managed in earlier works.
On the less positive side, most of the chapters – despite having different first person narrators – felt oddly similar to each other. They were all told using a linear, first person narrative and used a broadly modern literary style. I rather missed the real jumping around between forms – now a diary, now an interview, now letters – and styles that so wowed me in earlier works. Chapter Five, cheerfully abandons the “basically realism but there are a few weird things going on” approach in favour of just giving into the temptation to write things like, “I can invoke Shaded Way acts without disturbing the Chapel, but the Cathar’ll detect psychosoterica from the far side of the Schism.” But while this chapter shattered the genre divide (and there’s nothing I love more than when serious writers bring a bit of fantasy into their novels), it still stuck to the same approach. This isn’t an attack. They were good stories, the succession of first person narrators had engaging and differentiated voices, the modern literary style was smoothly executed. It’s just that it didn’t amaze me, and I was longing to be amazed.
It’s always something of an inevitability with this sort of book that there are going to be sections you like more than others. Here, I struggled with the overly long and overly self-indulgent section about the author, and even more so with the rather preachy “global warming is a bad thing” end section. But I loved Holly’s working class teenager in the eighties bit and the wonderful noughties section that cut back and forth between a war reporter’s time in Iraq and time at a family wedding as he weighed up the relative importance of family and duty. It’s inevitably going to divide people, but personally, I also loved the hardcore fantasy section. Generally, I find that literary writers are rubbish at this sort of thing, but I thought Mitchell cobbled together an interesting enough mythos.
Oh, and I suspect it goes without saying that I loved the chapter about the posh, handsome and caddish Oxbridge student who seduces our heroine and then joins an evil cult that grants him eternal life. I once claimed that Mitchell could take any writer’s novel and write a better version of it in one chapter.* Now I know how it feels when it happens to you!
Finally, maybe it’s just my imagination or my slight obsession with that book, but at times, I sort of felt that Mitchell was rehashing characters from Cloud Atlas. One of the nicest things about being a Serious Author is that people tend to give you the benefit of the doubt. If a real fantasy author had several characters in his new book that were rather similar to characters in an earlier work, he’d be accused of laziness and predictability. If Mitchell has done so, I can only assume that it’s some clever device. But come on. Was Hugo Lamb not just a 1990s Robert Frobisher?** Wasn’t cynical author Crispin just a tad reminiscent of cynical agent Timothy Cavendish? And brave war reporter Ed seemed to take a similar approach to life as brave crime reporter Luisa. And actually, those three stories come in the same order in both books, which probably means our too clever for his own good author is doing it on purpose.
This may be the longest review I’ve ever written, and I think that’s indicative of both the complexity of the book – which makes it very hard to summarise or reach an overall conclusion on – and my rather conflicted feelings, between admiring what Mitchell has done, and somewhat unfairly wishing that he’d done a little more. I don’t think this book is for everyone – the fantasy element will put some people off, while the unconventional structure will drive others away. But if you can bear a combination of fantasy subplot and state of the world pretensions (to quote a rather self-referential in-novel review of Crispin Hershey’s latest offering), give it a go. There are some flaws and misteps, but there’s also both brilliant storytelling and real literary cleverness waiting inside.
*From my review of Cloud Atlas: “I found the latter story reminded me of Never Let Me Go, which came out at more or less the same time, but I actually found the Cloud Atlas chapter to be better, even though it was only one small part of a much bigger whole.”
**To be fair, Frobisher is one of my all-time favourite characters in any novel, and Lamb was one of the best characters in this book, so I’m not exactly complaining about a possible rehash, but and as with the book overall, the newer character was just not quite as compelling as his comparator.