The sixth chapter in David Mitchell’s expanding meta-novel - The Bone Clocks - is that rare combination of deft writing, a compelling story and razor-sharp vision. Mitchell knows what he’s up against. Here is a writer at the peak of his power fighting against mediocrity and the onslaught of mind numbing and dehumanizing forces, revealing man as the true and sole redeeming factor in the universe. High praise for a fantasy story!
But is it really a fantasy story? At first glance, one might think that with this book, Mitchell has finally departed mainstream literature and set up shop ‘where there be dragons’. The story starts with teenager Holly Sykes, running away from home in 1984 and getting caught in a battle between two factions of ‘immortals’: the Anchorites and the Horologists. It’s a battle between good and bad, between compassion and exploitation, between life and death. The story is told from different points of view and covers a period of 60 years, ending with Holly as an ageing grandmother, caring for her two grandchildren in a world that has gone completely of the rails. Although the fantasy elements keep the story going at a nice pace, the battle between the factions is not the heart of the book. Whatever you call it, mainstream, fantasy or supernatural thriller, the book really is about what it means to be human and to be mortal.
At the core of the book is the old philosophical question of mortality. How it defines us as human, how we struggle with death and how the inevitability of our lives ending, shapes our thoughts and actions. In fact, Philosophy can be seen as the continuing attempt at making sense of all this. Our mortality generates metaphysical and ethical questions that resonate through time and confronts each generation anew with hard questions. Are we really just ‘bone clocks’, measuring time until, battered by disease, distress and decay, we dissolve into dust? Or are we the true measure of the universe, capable of replacing the vast incomprehensible world-beyond-our-control (and it’s resulting nihilism) with simple human sized compassionate actions. Do we have a soul? And what can that soul be? Story-wise, Mitchell adheres to the dualistic and platonic notion of the soul as separate from the body, migrating after dead towards some kind of destination - what that destination may be is of course left unclear. And there is a strong metaphysical vibe running through the book in that there is a world beyond this world, there is a veil that we can punch through to arrive at the other side of this life. This metaphysical notion is of course the source of a lot of suffering in the world, a fact Mitchell recognises in the last part of the book where a religious zealot is running for mayor and human rationality seems to go down the drain as a result. But let’s not treat ‘The Bone Clocks’ as a philosophical treatise. It is a good story that makes you think. And isn’t that one of the goals of literature?
Through the life of Holly Sykes we experience these questions in very sharp relief. Make no mistake. Holly is the centre of the book. Not all of it is narrated through her eyes and in some parts she is even relegated to a side character, but it is still all about her. And she is beautifully written. From rebellious teen to caring grandmother she is the canvas upon which Mitchell paints his ideas. Racked by guilt about the disappearance of her kid brother, devastated by the loss of loved ones, she remains capable of human compassion, seeing her life as connected to others. This connectedness is a main theme with Mitchell. Actions reverberate across time and across people. What we do has an impact, whether we acknowledge it or not. But all the characters in the book, even the most villainous ones, are capable of some degree of human kindness. There are more than 50 shades of grey at play here. This ambiguity of the human condition is best personified in Hugo Lamb. He starts of as a misogynistic egocentric who betrays his friends, and goes on to greater deeds of evil from there, but not before he has helped Holly shed some of her crippling guilt. Another great character, the writer Crispin Hershey, takes revenge on a literary critic, condemning him to rot in a columbian cell for three years, but then realises what he has done and tries to make amends.
Time moves fast in this novel. If your age is near Holly’s (16 in 1984) you will enjoy the references to the time when a microwave was a novelty, the internet was non-existent and things moved a lot slower. At certain times in the story the novel jumps ahead for a number of years. Rather than being jarring you just know - and I don’t know how Mitchell does this - that there is a kind of overshadowing story going on and you just follow him along the path. Although the jumps are not as severe as in ‘Cloud Atlas’ you still need to have a degree of trust in the writer that he will resolve all the issues. And Mitchell delivers. But not in the way you expect. There is a final showdown with explosions, betrayals and sacrifice but the book is not about the resolution of the war between the Anchorites and the Horologists.
There is a whole chapter after the final battle is played out. A final chapter that is brutal in its portrayal of a near future world collapsing under the greed of our generation. There is a disturbing parallel that can be drawn between the way we age and the way the world ages. If we just could extend our human gracefulness into ever broadening circles. Questions of guilt arise. Fortunately there is a sparkle of hope at the end. But not for all. There is severe tragedy here.
This book will keep on doing its work, long after you flipped the final page.
It is a very satisfying read. What Mr Mitchell has achieved with this book is momentous. I give it a full 5 star rating. I cannot believe he has been overlooked for the Man Booker prize this year.
(small spoilers ahead)
I would just like to end on a small observation. Just as is ‘Cloud Atlas’ (another major narrative achievement) relief seems to come from over the sea. A boat, a ship with a promise of a better world, to escape our trials and tribulations, to set of like Bilbo for a last destination…It’s an enduring theme and it seems to resonate within us on a deep level. There are other observations to make along this line…Holly providing ‘asylum’ in exchange for a refreshing drink, the golden apple…It just proves that Mr Mitchell is a great writer and that he - as every other great and perceptive artist - is deeply and intricately plugged into our human (un)consciousness. But I have no explanation for the multitude of birds that warble, gurgle, whistle, sing or tweet throughout the pages…