Review: Mitchell's 'Bone Clocks' a fantastic journey through time

Published Aug. 27, 2014

If you're looking for a writer who can do any style or genre, then David Mitchell fits the bill.

His 2004 novel Cloud Atlas had it all, to an almost absurd degree: historical fiction, a detective story, modern literary farce and futuristic sci-fi fantasy. Cloud Atlas was more like a series of stitched-together short stories than a novel, but it pursued a unifying thematic thread: how human beings prey upon each other for their own ends, but occasionally do selfless things that point toward freedom.

Cloud Atlas was beguiling enough to capture the attention of Hollywood filmmakers, while Mitchell continued writing new books, including a realistic coming-of-age novel set in 1980s Britain (Black Swan Green) and an unconventional love story set in Nagasaki in 1799 (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet). Mitchell and his wife even tackled nonfiction, translating the memoir of an autistic Japanese teen, titled The Reason I Jump, into English.

Fans of Mitchell like me couldn't help but wonder: What's next?

Mitchell's answer is The Bone Clocks, a novel that again uses a series of interlocking stories that jump across place and time. The linchpin this time is Holly Sykes, whom we follow from her teens, in Britain in 1984, all the way to her final years as an old woman in Ireland in 2043 (yes, 2043).

What happens in between reads like a supernatural adventure story crossed with contemporary literature. The novel opens with Holly running away from home after her mother forbids her to see a new boyfriend. As Holly treks across the countryside, we learn about her strange childhood, the way she's heard disembodied voices and seen an apparition of a sinister woman with blond hair and blood-red lips.

In the next chapter, we see Holly through the eyes of Hugo Black, a feckless Cambridge university student in the 1990s, who's plotting his successful future in London's financial district with psychopathic ruthlessness. On winter break with his college friends, Hugo meets Holly for a brief but significant few days on the Alps of Switzerland.

After that, it's 2004, and we meet the father of Holly's child, an adrenaline-addicted war correspondent who covers the second Iraq War. The next chapter brings us to 2016, when we meet Crispin Hershey, a British novelist hawking his latest book at festivals in Australia and South America, as well as offering a sharp critique of the publishing world as it grapples with e-books and short attention spans.

Finally, it's 2024, and we meet a time-traveling spirit trying to stop a rival gang of renegade telepaths. It's all connected to Holly's strange sensitivities and the mysterious disappearance of her brother Jacko, a precocious 7-year-old obsessed with mazes. While the explanations come 400 pages in, it's all worth the wait. A thrilling battle of good and evil ensues, and I couldn't stop thinking of Harry Potter's team taking on the Death Eaters in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Depending on your tastes, this will be frustrating or fantastic.

Mitchell's writing, though, is so clever and warm that it's easy to forgive him if he sometimes asks us to take too big a bite of science fiction. He's witty enough to include moments of metacommentary on what he's doing, as when a book reviewer in The Bone Clocks criticizes a fictional novel thusly: "The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book's State of the World pretension, I cannot bear to look." For the most part, though, Mitchell's fantasy subplot is nicely integrated and has the feel of early Anne Rice. (Mitchell himself has cited Ursula Le Guin as an influence.)

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Mitchell has said he sees his novels as combining to create one large fictional world, and he often draws on characters from his other books. The Bone Clocks is his most hyperlinked book yet. Hugo Black is the narrator's cousin from Black Swan Green; an Irish neighbor of Holly's is the physicist Mo Muntervary from Ghostwritten; and Marinus of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has a key role in The Bone Clocks. There's even a hat tip to the Cloud Atlas movie: Timothy Cavendish has written a tell-all of his escape from the nursing home, and it's now been turned into a movie. "Unbelievable, isn't it?" Cavendish crows. "Tom Hanks is playing me. Me!"

While at times humorous, the novel closes on a dark note, depicting a world where fossil fuels are drying up and scarce resources are fought for tooth and nail. This is Mitchell at his most intelligent, offering us a vision of where unrelenting human selfishness takes us. Mitchell asks us if we really want to go there, and he leaves us with the unsettling notion that we're already halfway there. Whether we stop and change course is entirely up to us.

Angie Drobnic Holan is the editor of PolitiFact. Contact her at Follow @AngieHolan.