Book Review: The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

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The Bone Clocks is the latest novel from David Mitchell, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and told in six parts. Mitchell is undoubtedly a talented storyteller and prose artist, but the question I kept coming back to was this: who is Mitchell writing for? Who is The Bone Clocks’ reader?

Part one, “A Hot Spell”, is set in Gravesend, Kent, in 1984. It is told in the first person from the perspective of Holly Sykes, a mouthy, brave and likeable teenager who runs away from home. This first part feels like a Young Adult thriller: something mysterious and threatening is happening in amongst the usual teen angst of clashes with parents and failed romances. Holly hears voices; has blanks in her memory. The supernatural is there, but, like Holly, we’re not entirely sure what’s going on.

Part two, “Myrrh is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume”, is set over Christmas/New Year 1991-2 in Cambridge and Sainte-Agnes (Switzerland). It is told in the first person from the perspective of Hugo Lamb, a sociopathically unpleasant undergraduate, and we meet Holly again. It feels like literary fiction; at some points the prose gathers rhythm and rhyme and turns into poetry, but it is typeset the same as the rest of the text, as if in disguise. The supernatural elements from “A Hot Spell” recur more strongly, becoming clearer.

Part three, “The Wedding Bash”, takes place in Brighton, 2004, with flashbacks to Iraq, from the first-person perspective of war journalist Ed Brubeck. It’s told as fairly straightforward realist fiction, with the explicitly supernatural absent: there is just a hint of something that can’t easily be explained. We see more of Holly.

Part four, “Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet”, is set between 2015 and 2020 in various international locations. It is told from the first-person perspective of Crispin Hershey, a famous novelist (“the Wild Child of British Letters”). This part is Mitchell as his most explicitly self-conscious: it is hyper-self-aware post-modernist fiction and a satire on the literary establishment. Hugo and Holly turn up again, as do some more hints as to the supernatural storyline.

Part five, “An Horologist’s Labyrinth”, takes place in 2024 in the USA, with flashbacks to early nineteenth-century Russia, and in the occult realm. It is told from the first-person perspective of Marinus, a supernatural being. Here the focus of the plot has shifted away from the human characters and concentrates instead on the larger-scale metaphysical conflict. The genre shifts as well: we’re now into pure fantasy. More specifically; old-fashioned, 1950s-era pulp fantasy. The supernatural baddies are “the Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Order of Sidelhorn Pass”; and the nails-down-a-blackboard neologisms just keep coming. It’s clearly a deliberate mockery; Mitchell’s pastiche of everything that is hysterical, derivative and just plain poorly-written in the high fantasy genre.

Part six, “Sheep’s Head”, is set in Ireland in 2043, once more from the first-person perspective of Holly. The genre has moved on again, this time to dystopian science fiction. The post-disaster setting is chillingly realistic and very well drawn. The action is almost entirely concerned with the human world. The plots and subplots of The Bone Clocks are, by the end, mostly resolved, and the ending is, more or less, narratively satisfying.

So far, so interesting − a varied and intelligent set of interweaving narratives, moving across time, continents, realities and genres. But with such a wide-ranging scope, who is the reader Mitchell had in mind when he wrote The Bone Clocks? Personally, I very much enjoyed the first four parts and the sixth, but the dullness and apparently deliberate badness of “An Horologist’s Labyrinth” really put me off. So Mitchell’s reader is not someone like me, who enjoys well-written fantasy.

I presume the reader of The Bone Clocks to be someone who enjoys YA, literary and realist fiction, hyper-self-conscious post-modernism, science fiction – and parodies of fantasy. That seems awfully specific, and a bit of a risk: even assuming your reader enjoys looking down their nose at fantasy, do you really want to force them to wade through 120-odd pages of the stuff? By that point, surely even the pleasingly smug feeling of knowing you were right has started to wear off, and your reader is just bored.

A quick review of reviews (see links below) reveals that the loved-it-except-for-part-five reaction is pretty common. Strangely, in writing “An Horologist’s Labyrinth”, Mitchell seems to be violating (deliberately, I presume) one of his own rules. In an interview with Mark Greaves in The Spectator, Mitchell said: “The fantasy material is ‘volatile’. It’s great as long as it’s off screen but the moment you show it or explain it then you can hear the hiss of deflating air.” Very true. Why, then, does part five exist?

The best reason I can come up with is this: Mitchell enjoys writing parodies of fantasy, and doesn’t mind whether the reader will enjoy reading it or not. He’s clever enough to anticipate the mixed critical reaction: in “Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet”, he has a reviewer say of the novelist’s latest book that “the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look”. In her review of The Bone Clocks in The Guardian, Ursula Le Guin calls this device “self-protective mockery”, and seems to mostly give him a pass. But I think the fact that Mitchell knows the reader won’t enjoy the fantasy parts of the book doesn’t excuse making them deliberately bad. It’s much worse than if, for example, he had tried in good faith to write fantasy well and had honestly failed. In fact, it’s almost as though the person for whom Mitchell is writing, the reader he had in mind for The Bone Clocks, was just David Mitchell.

In fair defense of The Bone Clocks I must say this: much of it is excellent. I really enjoyed my experience of reading most of it and I loved the character of Holly; I was on her side the whole way through. I even developed a soft spot for the posturing, self-parodying Crispin. Parts of The Bone Clocks are enthralling: funny, intelligent, moving, and beautifully told. But, ultimately, for all his talent, I can’t shake the feeling that Mitchell is belittling me, his reader, much as the supernatural baddies in his book belittle humans. I’m just a bone clock after all.

by Elizabeth Heritage, freelance writer, reviewer and publicist.

Other reviews of The Bone Clocks:
Ursula Le Guin’s in The Guardian
James Wood’s in The New Yorker
Ron Charles’ in The Washington Post
David Larsen’s in the  New Zealand Herald
Derek Thompson’s in The Atlantic
Brian Finney’s in the Los Angeles Review of Books
If you’ve read The Bone Clocks too, please let me know what you thought: @e_heritage

The Bone Clocks
by David Mitchell
Published by Sceptre
ISBN 9780340921616

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