Philadelphia Inquirer // The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

My review of this wonderful novel ran online on 9/23/14.


In The Bone Clocks, English novelist David Mitchell once again transports readers across time and space. The six novella-length sections are set from 1984 to 2043 and span the globe, setting us down in such far-flung locations as the Swiss Alps and Shanghai, remote Iceland, and the Australian Outback. One does not read a David Mitchell novel as much as climb aboard, grab on tightly, and get carried aloft on a magic carpet ride.

The international approach makes Mitchell one of our foremost novelists of this age of globalism, and it has served him extremely well in the past. Two of his novels – number9dream and Cloud Atlas – have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and it’s entirely safe to consider the later one of the true and rare masterpieces of recent literature. Further, his underappreciated The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, set at a Dutch trading post in 18th century Japan, is even more daring and, I think, even stronger in many ways.

At the center of The Bone Clocks is Holly Sykes, an Englishwoman who hears strange voices in her head, which she calls the Radio People. Her younger brother Jacko goes missing, and his absence creates a void that affects the goings-on in each of the subsequent overlapping storylines. The plot unfurls slowly and with a kind of literary precision one doesn’t encounter all that often.

Although this is a marvelously and painstakingly crafted book, it’s Mitchell’s all-too-human characters that keep the pages turning. These people – and its easy to forget that they’re characters and mere constructs on paper – are often awful to each other and to themselves.

Hugo Lamb is an economics and politics major at Cambridge whose early-1990s pursuit of profit takes a tragic toll on one of his so-called friends. Yet he remains sympathetic. The almost-washed-up novelist Crispin Hershey takes unimaginably brutal revenge on a critic who trashed his latest book. (Don’t get any ideas, Mr. Mitchell – I loved this novel.) A lot of deliciously bad decision-making goes on.

One of the most riveting characters is an English war correspondent, home from the Middle East for a wedding, who is forced to choose between his job and his family. “I don’t knock a peaceful and well-functioning society,” he tells us. “I enjoy it, for a few days, weeks, even. But I know that, after a couple of months, a well-ordered life tastes like a flat, non-alcoholic lager.” Mitchell makes us feel the weight of all of these tough choices. He has also sprinkled in a bit more humor this time around, which he uses to keep the growing tensions more or less in check until they finally explode.

The Bone Clocks is at heart a mystery: There are strange, seemingly out-of-body happenings neither the characters nor the reader fully understand. The elements of what we might consider fantasy or even science-fiction literature – which, again, Mitchell has previously used to tremendous effect – call to mind the transmigration of souls in Yukio Mishima’s landmark Sea of Fertility tetralogy more than, say, The Lord of the Rings or Dune. Even if those otherworldly strains feel a tiny bit shoehorned in at times, they make for some unexpected and enjoyable turns of the plot.

The Bone Clocks will feel comfortingly familiar in some ways to admirers of Mitchell’s previous time-traveling and genre-bending novels. It’s a joy to witness the workings of a singular creative voice at the peak of his powers.