In his latest novel David Mitchell returns to the format of a novel composed of several interlocking stories. In the The Bone Clocks the connection is the character of Holly Sykes, whose life we follow, partly through her eyes and partly through the eyes of characters that cross paths with her. Every story is told in a different voice (yes, even the two stories narrated by Holly herself, since her voice changes with age), although this is not as impressively done as in Mitchell’s most famous work, Cloud Atlas. In The Bone Clocks David Mitchell’s own voice comes through quite strongly. Well, I have to admit I do not mind too much, since I enjoy his voice. It is hard to describe how he weaves his magic, but the language reads quite fluently while being far from what one might call an “easy read”.
I enjoyed all the stories and am not able to pick a favourite. Holly’s voice in the first part reminded me somewhat Jason’s of Black Swan Green (one of my favourites) perhaps because they are both teenage narrators. It was an enjoyable read. Part four, Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet, was amusing. Crispin Hershey is a rather dislikeable character, (although not as dislikeable as Hugo Lamb of part 2) but his self-pity is surprisingly entertaining and he does move up the likeability scale towards the end. Crispin’s story is also a satire of the literary world, with much of the it taking place at various literary conferences. In mocking the literary world David Mitchell does not refrain from mocking himself, as one can tell from a review of Hershey’s latest book:
“So why is Echo Must Die such a decomposing hog? One: Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliché that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the books State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look.”
Well, I am not going to list of all the parts, but will say that narrators range from a nasty student, to a war reporter and an immortal. There is plenty for all tastes.
One of the things I love about reading David Mitchell’s work is the recurring characters. In this book Hugo Lamb, a secondary character from Black Swan Green, becomes a main character, and Mo Muntervary from Ghostwritten turns up as a secondary character. The most obvious return is that of Marinus from Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zout. There are some other recurring characters, but those will be spotted only by the most observant Mitchell fans. What makes this book different from the previous ones is that, unlike in the previous books where recurring characters have felt more like friendly visitors, in this book the worlds of the various books are truly coming together. The cosmology of The Horologists and Anchorites casts a new light on some events in the world of Jacob de Zoet. The future at the end of the book foreshadows some of the science fiction parts of Cloud Atlas (anybody else recognise the word prescients?).
What I glean from various interviews is that David Mitchell is only becoming aware of this larger unifying cosmology in the past few years. This is both exciting and worrying. Exciting because it gives me hope that none of his books are really finished. Perhaps the still persisting mystery of Soleil Moore will be solved elsewhere? Perhaps we will find out what became of some of the other characters? Who knows. The possibility is there. Worrying because one fears it might limit the possibilities of David Mitchell to use his imagination to its full extent. By setting all his books in one world there are rules that he cannot break. But in an article in Vulture (which also has a great table of recurring characters) I read that one of his future books might be set 250 million years in the future, so I guess he can let his imagination go wild with that one.
The Bone Clocks has been criticized for being entertaining but without substance (The Daily Beast). I am not quite sure how to reply to that except to say I feel that the book has plenty of substance, and whatever its weight, it is a darn good story. One can slowly force oneself to read thousands of pages of misery and heart-ache, but nothing beats a good story, which in addition sports beautiful use of language and unforgettable and complex characters. David Mitchell is one of the few writers whose books I read again and again, despite the fact that my to-read pile numbers over 100 books. The magic of his words never ceases to amaze me and I enjoy the books as much every time I re-read them. Now I just have to keep my hands off The Bone Clocks for some time, so that I can re-read it again with as much pleasure next time.