I don’t really even know how to begin to review this book. This was one of those books where I finished the last page and wanted to cry because it was over and I’m never going to find out what happened to these characters and the world they live in. But I’m also happy that this was the first David Mitchell book I’ve ever read and now I have a bunch more to read. But I’m also afraid for the characters and for humanity. Basically, this is me right now:
Describing the plot sounds ridiculous. Holly Sykes, a 15 year old in 1984 living in a village in Kent, runs away from home and finds herself drawn into a war between a cult of murderous Anchorite monks who can buy a few months of not aging by “decanting” a human soul, and benevolent Horologists who are reincarnated into the bodies of recently dead children and have the power to enter people’s thoughts and predict future events. The book is divided into 6 sections occurring at different times between 1985 and 2043 and being told from the perspective of different characters. It takes place in Iraq, Australia, Iceland, Ireland, China and probably other places I’m forgetting. Some of the characters have been reincarnated many, many times so we also have characters in the present talking about their past lives as a women in Imperial Russia or a man in Colonial Australia.
The common thread through all this is Holly. We see her through other characters eyes and follow her life, her loves and losses until she’s eventually drawn back into the war between the Horologists and the Anchorites.
One of the characters, a once-lauded author struggling with his increasing irrelevance, talks about “narrative tricks” used by the great authors of history:
“Psychological complexity, character development, the killer line to end a scene, villains splotched with virtue, heroic characters speckled with villainy, foreshadow and backflash, artful misdirection”.
This is, in essence, what The Bone Clocks is; an incredibly well-written story full of tried and tested literary “tricks”. Far from being manipulative though, it’s almost as though Mitchell is telling us to stop thinking about the writing and just engage with the themes.
Not sure if this is spoilerish but I’ll post this warning here, just in case…
The final part of the novel is set in 2043 and basically, humans have buggered everything up and civilisation is winding down. No more oil, internet, planes or medicines. We spend an entire book horrified by the actions of the Anchorites, but we’re blind to the real horror which doesn’t require supernatural stories about mystic afterlives or evil priests. Early on one of the characters observes that:
“while the wealthy are no more likely to be born stupid than the poor, a wealthy upbringing compounds stupidity while a hardscrabble childhood dilutes it, if only for Darwinian reasons. This is why the elite need a prophylactic barrier of shitty state schools, to prevent clever kids from working-class postcodes ousting them from the Enclave of Privilege.”
In 2043 a young raider tells the 80 year old women he’s stealing from:
“(You) had a better life than I did, mind…Your power stations, your cars, your creature comforts. Well, you lived too long. The bill’s due.”
The prophylactic barrier is gone and everyone is on an equal footing. Mitchell spends an entire novel showing us how immoral, greedy and selfish the Anchorites are, but not necessarily cruel. They don’t enjoy the deaths of children, they are just a means to an end. He builds his case slowly; no sane, moral person would agree the futures of innocent children should be sacrificed to feed the lust for power or desire for comfort of a tiny, privileged minority. Then he pulls the rug out from under us. We are all Anchorites. Every tank of gas, every slaughtered elephant, every dead river killed by toxic run-off, is a soul decanted for our immediate desires. What will be left for our children when we’ve used up all the resources for an extra month or two of comfort? Hardscrabble childhoods that will hopefully inoculate them against the stupidity of their ancestors? Mitchell serves as a Horologist to humanity. He is here to warn us of the inevitable outcome of our unchecked desire, our lack of empathy for others and our refusal to cede an inch of privilege.
This review doesn’t even touch on half of what’s in this incredible novel. There’s an entire section from the perspective of a war journalist set in Iraq during 2004 and an account of the atrocities towards Aboriginal Australians that are bleak and incisive and heartbreaking. Somehow we, as humans, have to do better. We’re not Horologists who get to live our lives over and over, but we can take what we have learned from the past and apply it to the future. This book is both a foretelling of doom as well as an incitement to be better, kinder, more thoughtful. Read it and be changed.