My rating: 8.5/10
Holly Sykes is an angry teenager, hormones raging and very stubborn, and runs away from home in heartache. There’s weird stuff going on in her life: she hears voices, strangers know her name. Before she realizes it, she’s recruited by something supernatural; embroiled in an epic, centuries-spanning conflict between two rival factions that only becomes clear through the span of her life.
It’s hard to look at The Bone Clocks without seeing it in context of Mitchell’s earlier works. The Bone Clocks is in some ways a repeat of the same narrative techniques he used in Ghostwritten (1999) and Cloud Atlas (2004) – switches between POVs, ranging across the globe, sometimes from past into the future, adding dashes of science fiction (in Cloud Atlas at least). It has become his signature style. This works perfectly for Mitchell because it allows him to showcase his versatility as a writer. This doesn’t mean that The Bone Clocks is a rehash. It’s good enough to hold its own in comparison to Cloud Atlas and theme-wise is pretty different.
Holly isn’t the only character of interest; others pop up and meet Holly at different times in her life. Six short stories ranging from 1984 to 2043 tell the story and in the end it all comes together with Holly as an old woman. Mitchell adapted his style to something suitable for each character and I can hear you say: “Golly! Another technique he used in his previous work!” Yes, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive, and keeps the book fresh, inventive and big in scope throughout.
Starting your novel with an obnoxious teenager is a bit of a risk. Authors invariably write better than a teenager ever could narrate her life, so that point of view always strikes me as a bit unrealistic. The rest of the book is indeed better, so stick with it, and Holly’s story keeps growing too. Following her life is one of the great joys of the story. I especially liked the sociopathic student (a Talented Mr Ripley type) and Crispin Hershey the arrogant author.
The book alternates drama with some welcome levity with these characters, although this is quite a dark book, still. It is so much concerned with death and looking away from it. Occasionally a character might say something about stopping time or ask what the point of it all is, but as Holly Sykes says at one point: “you only value something if you know it’ll end”. This seems to be at the heart of everything in this book. That goes for the fantasy conflict between immortals as much as for the sorry state of our planet.
So. Metaphysics. Mitchell seems to stumble over mistakes beginning fantasy writers make. The fantasy part felt very busy, with lots of jargon, info-dumping and the type of YA worldbuilding that uses lots of Capital Letters. It has Bad Guys going raaah! The action felt superficial and barely grew above your average superhero movie theatrics. Felt like 20 minutes of Doctor Strange got pasted into the middle of an Oscar-bait war film. I wished he had taken a page from John Crowley or Jonathan Carroll on how to add fantasy to mainstream writing.
However, fantasy is not given the role it usually gets. Magic, or, in a broader sense, the fantasy element of the novel, intrudes into the lives of the characters and does not lift them out of it. Wizard school does not help Harry Potter here. The good guys win, but it is meaningless. They don’t save the world. People and the planet die regardless, and magic offers no escape. The fantasy sections might therefore feel superficial on purpose; crafted so in contrast to the realism of the rest of the novel. A call perhaps to wake up from our fantasies.
The Bone Clocks excels in its stunningly vivid, deeply realized characters, like the guarded and passionate Holly Sykes. Most of them struggle with a fear of death and question their legacy. Add to that a kaleidoscopic plot where linkages are gradually revealed and characters pop up again after decades – a very full story in general – and having it all told through Mitchell’s witty, sharp prose makes for a very satisfying reading experience.