I liked this, but at the same time, I’m experiencing a potentially problematic personal issue where I’m getting pretty fatigued by multi-POV “but like, how are they all connected, man?” stories. Which is (reductively) David Mitchell’s main wheelhouse. Sorry Dave!
The problem is that, inevitably, there are some stories/sections I care about a lot, and others where I don’t quite connect to the character and with their relation to the greater plot. This was definitely the case with Cloud Atlas, the only other Mitchell book I’ve read, and which contained at least one section that I literally DNF’d. For my taste, this book worked out better overall, and it seemed a little less intentionally oblique. That said, I just can’t help but come back to the what if: maybe it’s better to do fewer stories really well than it is to overextend oneself trying to create a labyrinth out of characters and genres? Here’s how The Bone Clocks breaks down:
A Hot Spell, 1984 opens with a teenage Holly Sykes, rebelliously running away from home because her mother disapproves of her older boyfriend, only to seek shelter with said older boyfriend and find him there in bed with her best friend. Betrayed and with pride wounded, Holly isn’t ready to go home and face her mother, so she continues on to seek a temporary job at a strawberry picking farm where a friend had previously worked. We also learn about Holly that she’s probably a little psychic, and had heard voices and met interesting real-not-real characters as a child, but that they’d mostly left her alone lately. However, in a series of rapidly escalating incidents along her short sojourn to the farm, it becomes clear that Holly is somehow connected in a way she doesn’t know or understand to a war between factions of people who have unbelievable powers, one of whom was among those that had “contacted” her years ago. Although Holly ends up with her memory of the worst of it blanked, the entire episode results in two people dead and Holly’s younger brother, Jacko, somehow missing. So Holly must return home after all because the police wouldn’t search in earnest for him until they could see that he hadn’t merely run off with Holly.
Holly ends up being the common denominator of all of the stories, with the narrators in each having or developing a significant personal connection to her. Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume, 1991 features Hugo Lam, a pretentious upstart student who wants nothing more than to be rich and powerful so that he can ascend from an already comfortable upper-middle class upbringing into the elite. He’s studying law, and his interest in the law is equal parts aspiration toward a lucrative profession and the appeal of employing technicalities to excuse morally dubious behavior. Hugo sucks. He’s entitled and has a chip on his shoulder from only being almost as privileged as his extremely privileged friends, but while he resents them, he wants to be like them even more. His only motivation to do anything is self-interest, and that interest is purely the collection of knowledge and assets that will eventually mature into financial and social capital. So how is he connected to Holly? Exactly as you’d expect — while on holiday with his friends at a resort in the Swiss Alps, he meets Holly working at a bar and decides that there’s something special about her and sets to wooing her. To be completely fair, while he’s a total cad, he’s pretty decent toward Holly throughout their fling, and the implication is that he actually fell a little in love with her. But his section still ends with him leaving without saying goodbye as he’s approached by a mysterious organization basically promising him the world. And while anyone’s too-good-to-be-true bells would definitely be ringing in this scenario, Hugo is too much of a Skull and Bones secret society sycophant that obviously he jumps onboard with only the tiniest hesitation. Did I enjoy this section? Nope. Unlikeable characters are fine and all, but he’s a brand of unlikeable character that particularly puts my shoulders around my ears.
The Wedding Bash, 2004 is narrated by Ed Brubeck, who had been a childhood friend of Holly’s and is now her husband and father to their daughter. He’s a respected journalist, but it becomes quickly evident that the marriage is in trouble due to his (over)commitment to his work, the particular focus of which is reporting from active warzones. He keeps promising Holly that every next assignment will be his last, but it never is. I’ll be honest — I didn’t really care about Ed’s bit either. It’s scenes of him being a frustrated husband interspersed with scenes of him and his colleagues experiencing violence in the Iraq War, and I dunno, I’m sorry, but (spoilers I guess maybe?) you could see the writing on the wall with what was going to happen to Ed and I didn’t personally gain anything as a reader from his chapters. I was probably supposed to be affected by the war scenes, and call me desensitized I guess, but I get it — war is bad and it brings out the ugliness in people.
We get our next (and last) Flawed Male Perspective in Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet, 2015, which was probably the most gimmicky section in the book. Hershey is a lit fic author stereotype who is Surprised Pikachu whenever someone doesn’t know who he is, and goes around generally acting snobby and condescending to everyone. This is David Mitchell’s very transparent meta commentary on his field, but meh. It’s funny to make fun of blowhards, but self-aggrandizing lit fic authors aren’t a group of people that I spend a lot of time thinking about. That many words devoted to a winky referential takedown of this group, of which Mitchell is admittedly a member, seems like 4D irony to me — you have to be at least a little narcissistic to believe that people care so much about you that they’d like to see you roasted, AND that the best place for that roasting is in the middle of an otherwise unrelated story. Anyway, despite his initial condescension toward Holly’s best-selling memoir featuring her psychic experiences, Hershey ends up befriending her, to his own greatest surprise. And because Holly walks around accidentally dragging people into a looming supernatural conflict, Hershey becomes involved as well.
An Horologist’s Labyrinth, 2025 is where the book returns to full fantasy. This, cheekily, comes after how Crispin Hershey in the previous section was given mad side-eye by his publisher for dabbling in fantasy within lit fic, but the tawdry bath-house where fantasy and lit fic illicitly mingle kind of seems like David Mitchell’s happy place. And, honestly, even though I really like fantasy and tend to prefer books that have at least a little bit of it, I kind of get the criticism (even meant in jest) of how it’s employed here. Mitchell decided on bringing in this really complex mythology behind the magic and the final battle that’s about to take place, and dropping us in media res. But epic battles aren’t so just because of the literal scale; they’re meaningful because generally, a lot of worldbuilding and character development has led up to that moment. We’ve been following Holly in a fashion, but the horologists, who are meant to be the good guys making their last stand, are brand new. In the space of just one of many sections in this book, we learn their whole history and magic system, as well as the history of their evil opponents, the Anchorites. And because we don’t have time for nuance, the good v. evil of it all is just so black and white: the horologists simply are what they are, magic and immortality and all, and the Anchorites steal their powers by harvesting the life source of children that they kidnap. Pretty dang evil, right? Who wouldn’t want those guys taken out! I just imagine that if you’re not someone who reads a lot of fantasy, this section doesn’t do much for you, and even if you do read a lot of fantasy, you’re almost too familiar with the tropes and the shortcuts and so it takes a lot to actually impress you. It’s not that this “short story” (so to speak) is the worst fantasy story I’ve read this year by any stretch, but it seems like a book like this wants extra recognition just for genre-bending, even though the execution is kind of middling.
Finally, Sheep’s Head, 2043 features Holly in her twilight years, taking care of her granddaughter and (basically) adopted son/grandson. By the way, I’m not trying to spoil anything on purpose, but when I perfunctorily summarize the sections toward the end of the book, it’s inevitable that even the basics will give some things away about what happened before. I did the best I could with the previous sections, but with this one… the setting alone is a Choice that offers commentary on what came before. So honestly I’m just going to abstain from trying to sound perceptive and vague at the same time and just wrap up this whole thing. I don’t really know how to conclude all of this — obviously there were things I liked and things that I didn’t, but I think this review overall comes across as a bit more fatigued by the whole thing than I actually felt while reading it. That really is more of a reflection of the challenge of reviewing something like this than it is a recommendation against reading it, but it’s hard to know who would really best appreciate The Bone Clocks and who wouldn’t, since it’s so all over the place.