Since reading Ghostwritten many years ago, I have always been unfeasibly excited at the prospect of a new David Mitchell book. Sometimes this didn’t quite work out for me (Number9Dream and Jacob de Zoet) and other times, I just lapped it up (Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas). I reread Cloud Atlas recently and was blown away by its layers of meaning, and of course, there is that often mentioned sublime structure. So Bone Clocks then? What was it going to do?
I deliberately tried to avoid reading too much about the book before reading it, in the hope of not colouring my expectations (a big problem I had with Jacob de Zoet), but from glancing over this thoughtful review from James Smythe, I knew that this was Mitchell’s most fantastical outing to date; a thought that filled me with a soupçon of trepidation and huge dollop of excitement.
The novel pretty much defies reviewing. It’s similar to Cloud Atlas, in that it has lots of different entwined stories that inform one another. There is a general progression of story through the book, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. Bone Clocks is multilayered and has numerous voices, locations and timeframes. It starts in the past (in the 1980s, using a tone very similar to Black Swan Green), before travelling through the present into a possible near future. There are definite science fiction and dystopian themes here, and that will sink some readers’ battleship from the outset. Blend in some paranormal aspects and that’s probably another couple of frigates down. But I loved it.
I didn’t always love it. There were times when I thought Mitchell was meandering to who knows where. Some sections of the book are too long. Without a strong and coherent overreaching narrative, I was sometimes left with the feeling that whilst I admired each page, the whole was lacking something. What’s clever about the book however, is that with future sections informing the past, what seemed like an inconsequential aside takes on great significance later in the book. Remembering what has gone on can be something of an issue. Not only because so much happens in this book, but also because Mitchell references aspects of his other books in this one. More than once, I had the nagging feeling that the author was alluding to something external and I had the pleasure of trying to piece together what it was.
There is an amusing tone of self reference in the book. A fêted author, who previously wrote a book of dazzling structure, has a reviewer dismissing his latest book with ‘the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look…’ Mitchell perhaps pre-empting his own critiques, or at stating clearly he knows where his book falls. For Bone Clocks is indeed a fantasy book with state of the world pretensions and frankly, that it is, is its strength.
There are sections that tackle war-correspondence, the absurd situation in Iraq and its fomentation of animosity towards the West (and as we set out with air-strikes once again, this could not feel more relevant). Our over-reliance on technology and the somnambulance it induces, causing the human race to drowsily stumble into disaster. This book has a huge message on the perils of climate change. Woven through all this is a story of highly imaginative fiction, tying each theme together. It’s fantastic in every sense.
This being a David Mitchell novel, use of language is peerless. Whilst some may be tempted to dismiss his fantasy/paranormal conceits as silly, they are rendered in such quality prose, they feel as real as the gunfights in Baghdad. There is something to love on almost every page. There were times when I wondered where this book was going, but I was frequently struck by how much I was enjoying reading it. This is quite an unusual phenomenon. Some books suck you in; you read without noticing the passage of time. This one would often leave me dazzled. I was taken out of story, slightly breathless, caught up in the beauty of expression and ideas.
Much like Cloud Atlas the only way you’re going to find out if you’re going to like The Bone Clocks is to read it. No amount of review reading will be able to tell you the relationship you’ll have this book. If I could, I’d marry it. At the very least I’m looking forward to shacking up with it somewhere quiet again soon.