Even if you personally have a hand in a battle against good and evil that shook the very pillars of Heaven, when the smoke clears and the evil is vanquished eventually life will return to normal. While you were locked in your own high stakes fight billions of others walk through their day with their own joys and miseries, burdens and triumphs. While you may have won this particular battle ultimately you can’t save the world. The best you can do is save those you love and maybe, if you’re very lucky, yourself. You can lessen suffering but you can never eradicate it.
That is my takeaway from The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell’s newest novel. The mastermind of the dizzying and brilliant Cloud Atlas returns with a novel straightforward in plot but much more powerful and focused. This is not a beach read, it’s not meant to be rushed through and in fact if that is the way you read it you’re going to miss the details that enrich the experience. Some books are a meal, The Bone Clocks is a banquet.
In 1984 15 year old Holly Sykes runs away from her home in Gravesend, England after getting in to a row with her mother and finding her best friend and boyfriend in bed together. When she has a bizarre encounter with an old woman fishing on the side of the road later in the day she has no idea that this meeting will affect everyone in her life for years to come. Holly is the main character in that most everyone else in the book is at least tangentially connected to her. The book is structured much like Cloud Atlas with each section focused on a different character and time period. Some seem unrelated at first but connections become apparent as the full scope of the plot comes together.
And what a plot it is. A review I read described the story as “The Dark is Rising for adults” and that’s pretty apt. Each section of the book is peppered with events and occurrences that are supernatural. Words like Horology, Anchorites, Black Cathar, Dusk, and Black Wine to name but a few are used with no explanation leaving the reader to speculate until Mitchell gets around to explaining.
Without getting too spoilery, you have a group of people that can reincarnate. Some are good guys (Horologists) and some are bad guys (Anchorites). They are at war and normal humans are caught in between. This is the thread that ties everything together but is also a minor part of the novel. The Bone Clocks is epic, following Holly from 15 to her 70’s and charting not only her life but those around her and even the world itself. Mitchell pulls no punches when it comes to his take on our near future – bleak and all too plausible – and its surprising that one of the most intriguing sections of the book is the epilogue which is set in 2043.
I liked that the main characters were all well rounded. Some you aren’t sure on at first and they surprise you. Others grow more loathsome as the story continues but each reads like a fully fleshed out human being with all their good and bad traits intact. The Bone Clocks is a dense story but it’s never boring and that is due in large part to the intriguing cast of characters.
When it was over I wanted to start at the beginning and read it again just to see all the pieces I missed the first time through. By the end I was flipping back to earlier chapters re-reading what at the time was inscrutable but had since become crystal clear. I was rushing to finish not because I was growing fatigued but because I couldn’t wait to see how it was going to end. Considering The Bone Clocks is over 600 pages that’s a hell of an accomplishment for David Mitchell.