The Bone Clocks: A Novel

The Bone Clocks: A Novel - David Mitchell "The Bone Clocks" is the first book I've ever simultaneously loved and hated. At least five times during the course of my reading, it switched from a hard 2.0 rating to an impressive 4.5; in the end, I'm settling for a 3.0. In all three categories I'd use to assess a book - original concepts, characters, and story lines - "The Bone Clocks" showcases the good, the bad, and the ugly. Be forewarned: mild spoilers ahead hidden under the tags.

Plot-wise, "The Bone Clocks" follows a structure of story that I've been hooked on lately: a series of independent stories interconnected by a character, theme, or event. There are six different stories told by five different narrators. All six are incredibly different - connected loosely by a woman named Holly Sykes and a mysterious set of warring cults - and could work well, perhaps even better, as purely independent stories.

The first story, set in 1984, follows a young Holly Sykes, our central character, as she wanders around Southern England following a fight with her mom over her much older boyfriend. Next, we jump to 1991, where we see the heinous schemes of a Cambridge scholar and self-acknowledged sociopath, Hugo Lamb. In part 3, we get a closer look at Holly through the narration of her partner, Ed Brubeck, an Iraqi War reporter who struggles with choosing between his family and his dangerous job. Next, in my least favorite section, the story focuses on Crispin Hershey, a shamed and defamed writer who takes a series of questionable actions to console himself over his fall from grace. The fifth chapter, which I still can't decide if I liked or hated, finally sheds some insight on the two warring cults, the Horologists and the Anchorites. Lastly, we jump ahead into the distant future where technology has crashed, the western world is collapsed, and global warming has wreaked havoc on the planet.

The first two parts are a great read - Holly's story is that of a classic teenage runaway (complete with a twist at the end) and watching Hugo manipulate friends and family to his own advantage is infuriating, yet fascinating. My favorite story of the six was Ed's; interspersed with flashbacks from his time in Iraq, it gives us insight to all of the characters, and it's easy to understand why Ed would both want to settle down safely with family, and continue the work that needs to be done in the Middle East. Crispin's story is boring, confusing, and frustrating (I'll touch on that more in the character section). The last chapter, set in distant-future Ireland, gave a pessimistic but insightful look at what could become of the human race if we take our resources for granted. One issue I had a huge problem with was the lack of connection between the stories when it came to consequences of the characters' actions. Several characters die prematurely, but they're scarcely mourned or even mentioned in the next story. In one incredibly glaring instance, the narrator of a story is murdered to "send a message" to the world...but we readers never find out if that actually worked.

The Horology chapter, however, is the main source of issue for the entire plot. In Crispin's chapter, David Mitchell includes a cheeky, meta comment along the lines of "a book can't be partially fantasy any more than a woman can be partially pregnant". Mitchell is self-aware, it seems, but it doesn't do him any good, because "The Bone Clocks" is ruined by his failure to either commit wholly to the fantasy aspect or do away with it entirely. To elaborate, Horologists and Anchorites are immortal, mind-reading psycho-telekinetic body-hoppers, and Holly can see the future. Each story proceeding the Horology chapter is sprinkled with little doses of fantasy, but it makes no sense to the reader and seems completely out of the blue. Listening to 16-year-old Holly describe an Horologist mind-hop into a corpse and kill an Anchorite in butchered, ignorant terms is physically painful, and one of the points at which I nearly quit the book. Perhaps Mitchell's pseudo-fantasy world would have worked better if we'd learned about its mechanics first, but as it stands, readers must go through 80% of the novel before they have any idea of what's going on in the background (and even then, the Horology chapter explains everything very casually - I had more questions than answers afterwards).

When it comes to the characters, all are interesting, and many are very realistic. Hugo Lamb, in particular, is one of my favorites to read about. The "casual psychopath reveal" is always a fun trope in literature, and as I read on it shocked me just how nasty the intelligent, handsome scholar really was. Yet Mitchell makes a strange choice with his character that completely ruined him: having the narcissistic, money-crazed sociopath somehow "fall in love" and gain a dose of empathy reads like bad self-insert fanfiction. This is the same man who joined a cult of evil soul-sucking immortals, the same man who, upon hearing that one of his close friends had driven off of a cliff, lamented the loss of the expensive car...and yet, he spares Holly Sykes because he "loved" her? Crispin was a miserable excuse for a person, yet he was a realistic and well-written character who is probably very similar to many of our favorite real life celebrities. Mitchell also throws us a bone and allows some enjoyable minor characters - such as Ed Brubeck - to reprise their roles in later stories. As much as I just complained about the Horology chapter, the Horologists themselves were fascinating...age-old eternal beings who have lived a hundred different lives in different countries, as different races and genders? This was an aspect of the story that I wish we'd learned more about. On another little tangent, it's interesting to note the difference between the all-white, evil Anchorites and the diverse, benevolent Horologists.

Original Concepts
I feel like I've touched enough upon the fact that the original fantasy world was thrown in too carelessly and ambiguously, so I'll focus on the idea itself. Though not entirely original, it provides good food for thought: what makes a person who they truly are, if not a body, a race, a gender, or even what mind they reside in? If a person lives many lives, who are they, truly - the first person they lived as? Their most meaningful life? We see a little bit of this variance with Marinus, who kept his first name, and Esther Little, who chooses to keep her original, indigenous name known only to a small personal circle. Mitchell uses a linguistic tactic to make his words original that I found very annoying: adding "sub-" or "psycho-" prefixes to other words ("psychovoltage", "psychostream", "she subspoke", "he subasked", and even "he subinquired"). Mitchell's writing also did a poor job of capturing the battles, fights, and scrimmages in a way that made it meaningful or understanding; often, I just glanced through these paragraphs. Over all, I feel that if the concept was elaborated on, it could have been a great fantasy series...but that just didn't happen. Maybe Mitchell figured the audience would understand more than they actually did, or maybe he used unreliable narration as a cop-out of explaining everything. The world will never know.

All in all, this book is worth a read, but not a struggle. If you pick it up and find yourself bored or confused, don't be ashamed about skipping to the next story or quitting the book altogether. Skip over any Horology riff-raff if you can't understand it.