The Bone Clocks (2014) by David Mitchell

theboneclocks1What’s that you ask? A book from 2014?

Yes. This is a thing I do sometimes. This happened last September, too, because September tends to be “book release month of famous, well-established authors” and I just can’t resist some releases. Speaking of reviewing new books, Books, Brains, and Beer has started an interesting discussion about the benefits of reviewing upcoming releases, but this post is entirely coincidental. If you follow my Twitter feed (@couchtomoon, ahem) you’ll notice that my reviews are posted at least two weeks after I read the books.

There are a lot of reviews out there for David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, most of them written by fans and critics who are familiar with, and have expectations of, his work. I’m not and I don’t. I’ve neither read, nor seen, Cloud Atlas, nor any of his other works. I read this simply because the onslaught of marketing was difficult to avoid in early September and the plot caught my attention. A multi-character collage, in an historical and near-future real world setting, where small hints of magic intrude upon daily life and connect the unwitting human participants—sounds like a story I can dig.

Holly Sykes is a rebellious teenager who runs away from home in 1984 and encounters a strange woman named Esther Little, who offers a cup of green tea in exchange for “asylum.” Holly has always had strange encounters with vanishing people, so she thinks nothing of it. Then Holly’s odd little brother, Jacko, disappears, which devastates her family. We find Holly again in subsequent narratives, each spaced a decade apart. We meet Hugo Lamb in 1991, a blueblood college student with a penchant for long cons; Ed Brubeck in 2004, a war journalist assigned to cover Middle Eastern hot spots; Crispin Hershey in 2015, a dried-up literary author with a sense of snobbish entitlement; and Iris Fenby a.k.a. Marinus in 2025, an Horologist involved in a centuries-old war with the predatory Anchorites. Then we return to Holly’s POV in 2043, now an aging grandmother, fending for her family after the collapse of the global economy and its technological infrastructure.

For the most part, The Bone Clocks is a mature, subdued slipstream fantasy, with realism on par with much modern “literary” fiction (which means war and struggling marriages and such). However, some readers with that expectation may need to strengthen their resolves for certain parts of this novel. First-person teenager perspective is an automatic downgrade for many of us who have been burned by too many well-meaning young adult book recommendations, and Mitchell, as a “literary” author, is brave (or is it savvy?) to begin his novel in such a way. It might feel like YA at first, but it’s hard not to be enticed by Holly’s naïve teenage rebelliousness, and its evident pointlessness is much too sincere to be directed at any reader below the age of twenty.

The narratives following Holly’s teen years are more mature, but with their own brand of guileless conflict: Hugo Lamb’s sense of invincibility and love; Brubeck’s struggle between family and career; Crispin Hershey’s inevitable slip from best seller’s list. This is where Mitchell shines. Each character is pulsing and alive, separate and distinct from one another. Characters don’t have dialogue—they have voices, and their conversations and inner thoughts are neither contrived nor hyperreal. They are interesting. They are engaging. (There were many nights when I planned to read only a few pages before sleep set in, only to find myself two hours later, wide-awake and fully engaged.)

Some readers might take exception to the character of Crispin Hershey, a writer perhaps modeled off of the stodgy old coots Mitchell has encountered in the book world. Crispin is arrogant, condescending, and dangerously jealous, as he is replaced by younger, hipper writers (who might or might not be David Mitchell himself). In one scene, Crispin verbally spars with the female author of “Pale, Male, and Stale: The De(CON?)struction of Post-Post-Feminist Straw Dolls in the New Phallic Fiction” (p. 326). I think this scene bothered a Twitter friend of mine, who found Crispin too familiar to be enjoyable, his presence being too reminiscent of the many controversies that plague SF fandom. I, having grown up in an assertively feminist household with Mary Wollstonecraft and Emily Dickinson hailed as gods (only exaggerating a little), thought it was hilarious as a mocking tribute to the “PUBLISH AND LOVE ALL THE FEMALE AUTHORS!” argument. To me, the scene is so meta, I can’t help but wonder if Mitchell is as conflicted as I am on the SF gender divide. There are times when it feels like Mitchell hates guys like Crispin, but other times when it feels like Mitchell is using the character to voice some unsayable things. Some might find this offensive. I did not.

But then we get to the fourth section of the book, when Mitchell drops the threads of this brilliantly subdued slipstream reality—the threads he weaves so well—and plunges into Super Awesome Sorcerer Fantasy with Expository Dialogue as we Sip Tea narrative. This narrative comes from the Horologist herself, Marinus, and she shares stories of her many lives (a primitive Outback visitor, a nineteenth century Russian peasant) and divulges the tale that’s really going on behind the curtains of all of this reality. The conflict between the Horologists, (involuntary recipients of Many-Lives-Syndrome), and the Anchorites, (Eternal Life Seekers who prey on human souls— the bone clocks), in order to postpone mortality. We’ve seen glimpses of this war in the previous narratives, but it doesn’t make sense until Marinus tells us everything.

And, boy, does she tell us everything.

Nothing kills the mystery of magic like telling the reader all about the magic. I think most authors know this—it’s certainly how I’ve been conditioned to receive such fantasies. But Mitchell exposes too much, too quickly about his immortal underworld, even though the reader has already committed to 60% of the novel with its dangling mystical carrots. I would have followed those carrots to the end, perfectly satisfied to never learn about what was really going on in the dusky corners of these peoples’ lives. This portion of the novel is rushed, cliché, and clumsily done, and it makes one wonder if all of the winking-and-nudging about the previous writerly character of Crispin was also Mitchell’s way of saying, “I am that over-celebrated author. I can do bad things with books, too, but it’s okay because I KNOW that I am doing it badly. But I have an advance to earn and maybe I bit off more than can chew with this whole ‘genre’ thing.”

And then the tea talk. Ugh. I don’t care if you’re writing about horcruxes, or horology, or your previous life as a whore, it’s just not interesting when your characters sit around a tea set talking about it. Mr. Mitchell, you know better.

theboneclocks2But my main issue with the story is that it’s too much like life, in that, despite all the magical sorcery stuff, nothing is really connected beyond coincidence and author convenience. The characters appear in each other’s lives, yet we see little reason for those moments. Holly and Hugo have a brief, intense affair, and later, fall on opposite sides of the Horologist-Anchorite war, yet Mitchell fails to play with that tension. Mitchell does a beautiful job of illustrating the war in Iraq, a perfect opportunity to foreshadow and mirror the Horologist-Anchorite war, but if he did, I’m too dense to see it. The characters experience a suicide, disease, and murder, which haunts them, yet it does not factor into the underlying plot. The connections and experiences of the characters are more banal, like real life, and like literary fiction. For genre readers looking for magical connections and supernatural significance, this may be very disappointing.

To sum up this extremely long review (so sorry!), for SF readers, The Bone Clocks is perhaps best viewed as a series of novelettes that occur within the same universe. Had I known better, I would have skipped the fourth “novelette,” although fans of outright sorcery fiction might dig it. I doubt there will be many SF readers who will find this novel satisfying in its entirety.

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22 thoughts on “The Bone Clocks (2014) by David Mitchell

  1. Rabindranauth says:

    Slipstream fantasy? That’s a new one.

    Finally, a review of this book that doesn’t brutalize my retinas with rainbows, flowers and unicorns! It’s nice to know it has it’s flaws. I’ll probably only read it if it makes it onto WWEnd.

    Like

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      http://www.sfra.org/sf101slipstream

      The definition of slipstream is rather nebulous, so I finally decided to just call it when I see it. Like the supreme court and obscenity, I can’t define it, but I know if when I see it. The Bone Clocks is as slipstream as it gets.

      This was long listed for the Booker Prize wayyy before the release date, but that hope was shut down when it didn’t make the short list.

      I hope Mitchell attempts SF again and does a better job with the SF elements. He has the talent to do so. I should have mentioned that in my review but 1300wordswhatthehelliswrongwithme?

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      • Rabindranauth says:

        Thanks for the link, I think the length of that article made my brain automatically shut down though x_x I know about the Booker Prize thing, that surprised me. I didn’t even know they did that before a book’s released to the public. Bah, 1300 words isn’t too much 😀

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        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          That’s the point! The definition is so freaking long and contradictory. Just read the quotes at the end.

          What is up with your avatar photo? Lol.

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          • Rabindranauth says:

            Ah, so it’s very similar to Rowling. Her books literally have everything from dragons to unicorns, but she refuses to view them as fantasy -_- Cool, I think I’ve got it now. Sounds pretty interesting though. I get what you mean about contradictory, though. It strikes me as a way for those highbrow literary folks to read SFF without accepting that they’re reading SFF, heh.

            Oh, my girlfriend moved to Canada to get her Post Grad in Alternate Dispute Resolution, and I told her I was going to find a friend for her, hah. I like the little guy, he’s adorable.

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          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            That’s adorbs. I was really hoping you were a penguin who reads SF.

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          • Rabindranauth says:

            😮 Would it be too late to change my blog name to Drunken Penguin Reviews?

            Liked by 1 person

  2. stephswint says:

    Thank you.I laughed out loud sty the tea conversation comment

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      So glad you agree! I have harped on it before and it probably makes me seem crotchety, but I have read WAY too many expository tea convos over the years. Find a new vehicle for your backstory, writers!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What the hell. This isn’t vintage sci-fi.

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  4. […] Promotion Extravaganza also happened this month and I fell hard. I crushed on the book blurb for The Bone Clocks (2014) by David Mitchell until I dropped my regularly scheduled vintage programming and was sucked […]

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  5. What a great review! It has put me off ever reading the book, to be honest, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      That really is too bad, because it is a well-written, intriguing read (for the most part) but it could it have been so much more.

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      • In that case, The Bone Clock may get a reprieve, depending on my reaction to Cloud Atlas when I finally get around to reading it. David Mitchell appears to be a very polarising author; people seem to either love his work or hate it.

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  6. […] The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: The problem with this book is that the majority of it is so enjoyable with its decade-jumping, perspective-hopping sections, everyone will find something they like, but they won’t like everything. In my case, I enjoyed nearly all of it, with its little bit of vague magical warfare coursing through the background of the lives of these intriguingly mundane characters. BUT THEN. MAGIC FANTASY HAPPENS. AND ALL IS EXPLAINED. IN A CONVERSATION. OVER TEA. AND THEN A MAGICAL WAR HAPPENS. IN ANOTHER REALM. IT LASTS ABOUT FIVE MINUTES. AND GOOD WINS. I would normally chalk this up to an author subverting tropes, but I just didn’t get that feeling with this one. I talk about it more here. […]

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  7. graycope14 says:

    You totally nailed it!
    I’m a fan of Mitchell’s writing, adore ‘Cloud Atlas’ and ‘Thousand Autumns …’, and was really enjoying this one until I reached the fourth section. What happened to him? Did he throw it in at the last minute due to publisher’s demands? Or just run out of time? It felt a bit like reading an instruction manual in the middle of a really cool adventure game.
    Mitchell can write good sf; just check the Sonmi-451 story in the middle of ‘Cloud Atlas’. Fancy a cup of tea?…

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Haha, thanks again!

      I really love most of what Mitchell did here. This is exactly my kind of book… until that fourth part (I think it’s actually the fifth part, now that I’ve read other reviews. I don’t think I numbered the parts correctly :-/). It felt like a slap in the face to genre lovers. I think some critics have theorized that it was a meta-effort on his part, a commentary on SF style perhaps, but I just don’t buy it. It felt rude and crude and I was super disappointed.

      I will be reading more David Mitchell, though. He’s an excellent writer and I’ll eventually get to Cloud Atlas. And more than one person has mentioned Thousand Autumns, which I had never heard of before until this post.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. […] as I felt that the magickal tea party section was a slap in the face, I most enjoyed Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks novel out of that entire group. City of Stairs was too manipulative and sentimental […]

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