When I was in 5th grade, my grandmother (who was a children’s librarian) gave me a copy of Susan Cooper’s book, The Dark is Rising. At that point, it was the second book in a soon to be five-book series, drawing heavily on Arthurian legend. In it, young Brit, Will Stanton, finds out on his eleventh birthday that he is the last of the Old Ones, a group of immortal beings dedicated to fighting for the Light against the powers of the Dark. It’s the usual trope of Good versus Evil, but what made the series so good (and compelling to just turned 11-year-old me) was the way Will Stanton’s world turned upside down. One minute he was an ordinary kid, the youngest in a large and chaotic family, and the next, a veil was pulled back and he suddenly saw the extraordinary things going on that few others could see. Since then I’ve always been a fan of novels that begin firmly rooted in the reality we know but then veer off into strange territory—secret forces, hidden worlds, etc.
I think this is why I found The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell so compelling. I haven’t read Cloud Atlas or any of his other books though I was aware that Mitchell seems to be the kind of writer you either love or passionately hate. The world that Mitchell creates here, with Holly Sykes at its center, is one that seems grittily realistic—even as Mitchell pushes the story into the future. However, peel back the veil and there’s something magical/supernatural/unnerving going on—something that is gradually revealed over the course of 600+ pages.
This novel starts out simply enough. It’s 1984 and teenage Holly Sykes is having a very bad day. She has a fight with her mom, runs away from home to stay with her boyfriend, Vinny, only to discover that she’s not the only girl in Vinny’s life. This sends her off on a longer journey—to “run away” long enough to make both her mom and Vinny guilty. However, a chance encounter with a strange old homeless woman reminds Holly of other odd moments in her life, when she used to hear voices that she called The Radio People. And then things get stranger and stranger.
The novel continues in chunks-each chunk constructed from a different character’s point of view and set in a different time period—but each narrator will intersect with Holly in some way. We move from the 1980’s into the 1990’s and all the way to 2043. Mitchell gives us bits and pieces of the larger “supernatural/mystical/call it what you will dynamic” going on as it’s experienced by each of these characters and he offers a view of the future that is as chilling as many a dystopian YA novel. I’m trying to not be too specific here since one of the appeals of the novel is trying to figure out what really is going on. For those readers who like concrete and well-explained plots, this is not the book for you. However, if you’re willing to invest in each of these “worlds” Mitchell creates, the effect of the whole is very powerful. I devoured this book in big chunks and kept wanting to come back to it.
It’s a book that stayed with me, a bit like a vivid dream, and I’ve found myself thinking about it at odd times since I finished it over a week ago. If you don’t mind ambiguity and dense description, this novel is well worth the investment. If it weren’t so darn long, it would be a great book club book—because there are lots of ideas to grapple with.
P.S. Just to be clear, as an adult, I still love The Dark is Rising series (and hope to revisit it in 2015 for Cannonball Read).