‘The Bone Clocks’ by David Mitchell is a strange, captivating book. At turns, enthralling and frustrating in equal measure. It is a collection of short stories that share a common thread. Each story contributing to a larger narrative. It’s an unusual structure but one David Mitchell has used to great effect before, most notably in ‘Cloud Atlas’.
We follow the life of Holly Sykes, whom we first meet as a teenager in the 1980s. Holly is in the throes of her first love with Vincent but, forbidden to see him by her mother, runs away only to walk in on Vincent and her best friend in bed together.
Holly is a defiant strong-willed character, refusing to slink back home. Instead she strikes out on her own, leading to her first fateful encounter with the immortal Esther. She learns that there are many immortals living amongst us, some good and some bad. Esther is one of the good ones and she has been fighting to protect humanity from those who feed on human souls to prolong their own life. Humans or Bone Clocks are prey for these evil immortals and, unfortunately, they are winning the war. Holly agrees to help Esther in a time of great need. In exchange, Esther protects Holly from the savagery of the evil ones but at the cost of placing her squarely in the centre of the conflict.
This is the only flash of the paranormal in an otherwise earthly story of teenage love and heartbreak. This pattern continues throughout the book with each new story bringing a new point of view and a further glimpse of the larger immortal conflict taking place behind the scenes. The mundane will suddenly shift to reveal a supernatural undercurrent.
Though Holly does not continue as the narrator for the rest of the book, she does continue as its focus. Each new character brings a new decade and a new perspective but is still connected with Holly in some way.
The remaining characters include Hugo Lamb, an unprincipled toff. Ed, a war correspondent and Holly’s husband. Crispin Hershey, a fading literary star. Each character is sharply drawn and, after only a few paragraphs, I felt I knew them. I particularly enjoyed Crispin Hershey, a once feted author who was now struggling with his slow slide into obscurity. His revenge on his critics was particularly funny, if a little brutal. Each character weaves in and out of Holly’s life playing some small part in getting her to the final confrontation her life is leading to.
After the human stories of Hugo, Ed and Crispin, come the immortals. Marius, one of the good guys, has been alive for centuries, dying and being reborn over and over with all his memories intact each time. With the introduction of Marius comes the final confrontation that the book has been building toward and we learn what Holly’s role has really been down the years.
By the time of the climax, when we are finally fully immersed in the immortals struggle, I found that I really didn’t care all that much. You would think that with all their experience, the immortals would have been fascinating but, of all the characters, I found them particularly uninteresting and the least fleshed out. This was not helped by the sudden explosion of jargon when we do finally meet them. The fact that this info-dumping was not seeded throughout made the sudden change to the immortals viewpoint jarring and detracted from the climax. The final battle felt limp and unearned. Potential plot twists were casually thrown away and everything just ground to a halt.
Holly has become embroiled in a metaphysical battle that has raged between two groups of immortals down the ages. However, rather than focusing on this larger and grander story, we are only given glimpses of it in the shorter narratives. That is until the end, when it is suddenly shoved front and centre.
The device of weaving smaller stories into telling a larger one is, for me, what makes this book so hit and miss. We catch tantalising snatches of the larger plot as we deal with more mundane matters, leading some stories to feel very incidental to the plot. However, each human story was still highly readable with each character strong and beautifully realised. At times, I became immersed in their lives and, on the occasions when the larger narrative did reappear, it felt like an intrusion. For me, this book felt like a fantasy book had crash-landed into a literary one and both had suffered for it. Each idea was strong but, with so many viewpoints, nothing was really given the time and space to breathe or develop.
All in all, ‘The Bone Clocks’ felt like a book where the sub-plots had taken over. Each strand could have produced an interesting book in their own right but, smashed together like this, the whole thing felt rather less than the sum of its parts. The fantasy elements were intriguing and could easily warrant a book of their own but, when they appeared here, they felt invasive. I think the writer held too much information back for the final story leading the whole narrative to feel uneven with too many ideas competing for space.
This may all sound like I did not enjoy this book which is absolutely NOT the case. It is a very readable and engrossing book. In fact, the pleasures far outweighed the frustrations. Overall, I found ‘The Bone Clocks’ to be a good book but ultimately it could have been so much more.
(pub: Sceptrebooks. 613 page paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-340-92162-3)
check out website: www.sceptre.com