The Bone Clocks

“The impossible is negotiable.”

David Mitchell

Fair warning, Constant Reader: I finished reading this perhaps an hour ago, and I’m still a little shell-shocked. Apologies, therefore, for any incoherency which results.

What to say, then, about The Bone Clocks? I was planning to witter a bit about the delightful fact that my copy is signed by the author and very very pretty, but that feels a bit irrelevant now, as does my standard Cloud Atlas fangirling which was Plan B. Even a synopsis is hard to attempt, if only because it entails a level of over-simplification which seems almost heretical. But, for what it’s worth, The Bone Clocks is, at its most basic level, the life story of Holly Sykes, daughter of an Irish pub landlord in Kent.

It’s also – almost incidentally – an account of an age-old War between two groups of psychic immortals, and a potted fable of a move from innocence to experience, both personal and social. And if that sounds like an odd combination, well, this is David Mitchell.

Like Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks is a sextet of sorts, narrated by five different narrators in six sections, each of which might well stand alone as separate novellas. They tell us Holly’s story as it appears to them; sometimes this is at an oblique angle (hi, Crispin Hershey); sometimes it’s more direct, as when Holly herself speaks to us. The upshot of this is that the Sykes saga does not so much unfold as coalesce, from webs of coincidence and chance-meeting, from throwaway remarks and echoes of things that have gone before. It keeps you flipping back and forth as hints dropped in earlier chapters work themselves out in later ones, as characters wander in and out of shot and their fates unfold, slowly, in front of one’s eyes. It’s an effect only increased by Mitchell’s favourite tactic of self-referentiality: the novel is full of throwbacks to Cloud Atlas, the largest of which sent me into a frenzy of theorising: are Meronym’s Prescients Horologists? What is Mo from Ghostwritten doing in Ireland? Does Holly know the work of Luisa Rey? Am I taking an author’s playful intertextuality too seriously?

While the book’s fantasy elements – namely the psychic War – occasionally spin off into metaphysical ridiculousness, the Horologist chapter towards the end of the novel is certainly one of the most fascinating and enigmatic portions here. And I love the way that the fantasy plot thread turns out, ultimately, to be no more important than any other plot thread. After all, as every fantasy reader knows, magic is only a normality you haven’t got used to yet. We only notice it because it’s not our normality. What’s important here, what’s really important, is not what we call “normality” (which shifts, anyway, from moment to moment), but Holly herself: Holly’s teenage vulnerability and her old-aged toughness, her fear, her compassion, her love, her loss, her grief, her joy, her friendship. Her long life, whatever it brings. And character. Character is strong here as it is in Cloud Atlas, not only Holly’s but Ed Brubeck’s, Lorelei’s, Crispin Hershey’s, Rafiq’s, Marinus’. Even – especially – sociopath Hugo Lamb’s. I will not forget Hugo Lamb in a hurry.

It’s not until you’ve turned the last page of The Bone Clocks that it hits you, emotionally and mentally: the sheer ambitious scope of it, its hopeful despair and its fatalist optimism. And while there were parts that seemed to drag a little as I was reading them, I don’t now regret a word of it. It’s a lovely, lovely novel, this one, about all the Big Things: life and death and love and literature and everything in between. I’ll probably be obsessing about it for at least the next month or so, incidentally, which will make reading the TBR pile fun.

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