Howard Cincotta's Reviews > The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
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bookshelves: fiction, somewhat-literary

Ever wonder what The Da Vinci Code would be like if it were written by a literary master? The answer is the second half of The Bone Clocks – and therein lies the problem, since the first half is a different book entirely.

Individual scenes – Christmas in snow-bound Switzerland, the supernatural abode of the Blind Cathar – are as good as anything Mitchell has written, which is very good indeed. But the two parts mesh together uneasily, even though Mitchell carefully controls every note of foreshadowing and plot development.

The common denominator is Holly Sykes, whom we first meet as a teenage runaway in 1984 in London and last as a middle-aged woman in Ireland in 2043 as a new Dark Age appears to be descending on Europe. Holly is fiercely attached to her family, especially a long-mourned brother who disappears on the day she runs away from home, and later her daughter, Aoife, and grandchildren. But Holly has another attribute: extrasensory perception that allows her to hear disembodied “radio people.” When she writes a book on the subject, she becomes a literary sensation.

Still, even with these psychic intimations hovering around the story, the Bone Clocks initially feels like a fairly traditional novel of social and even political commentary, largely through three men whom Holly encounters and changes in profound ways.

Hugo Lamb is a member of what can only be called a gang of over-educated Cambridge twits who treat the world with supercilious arrogance. The Cambridge crowd receives a terrible, if richly deserved comeuppance from a gang of thugs and pimps in Switzerland, although Hugo abandons them in their hour of need and escapes to his new girlfriend, Holly. Although in love with Holly, Hugo abandons her in turn for the sinister Immaculée Constantin – and transforms himself from the merely odious to the demonic.

The second man is Ed Brubaker, father of Aoife, a war correspondent who is addicted to the adrenalin rush of conflict, which gives Mitchell an opportunity to paint an unsparing portrait of the war in Iraq. The third is novelist Crispin Hershey, a blocked writer watching his reputation bubble burst, while beset with an ex-wife, estranged children, and girlfriend issues. Crispin’s initial contempt for Holly and her apparent spiritualism transforms into respect and then love over the years, although they are never lovers.

When Crispin meets an obsessive fan from the dark side, the novel shifts gears and moves abruptly into a supernatural realm that is like a combination of Stephen King as horror writer and Joyce Carol Oates in her most gothic mode. Holly is now a pawn in an otherworldly struggle between “atemporals” – spirits who move from body to body – and carnivore “anchorites” who seek to capture atemporals and “decant” their souls.

The cosmology of this supernatural dimension becomes so complicated and rococo that at first I thought Mitchell wanted us to see the whole thing as parody. But I don’t think so. Instead, he is choosing to pay elaborate tribute to an entire tradition of horror, fantasy, and dystopian science fiction encompassing everything from Dracula and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books to China Miéville and William Gibson. Mitchell probably has an homage to “Werewolves of London” hiding in there somewhere too.

The problem isn’t that we weren’t forewarned about this hovering spirit-world in the first half of Bone Clocks, but Australian literary festivals and clubbing in Switzerland are long way from the supernatural territories of the Shadow Walk, transmigrating souls, the chapel of the Blind Cathar, and the deadly phenomenon known as the Dusk. We also learn that bodies are not merely the hosts for other souls, but for characters from other Mitchell novels, most notably Dr. Marinus from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

It is a mind-bending performance, even if the sum isn’t quite the equal of its parts. You will forget many of the details, but the narrative power of The Bone Clocks will remain with you like awakening after a powerful dream.

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Reading Progress

July 14, 2015 – Started Reading
July 14, 2015 – Shelved
July 14, 2015 – Shelved as: fiction
July 14, 2015 – Shelved as: somewhat-literary
August 12, 2015 – Finished Reading

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