Book Review: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell


The Bone Clocks

David Mitchell

It’s unfortunate that many of us are plagued by a lack of sufficient reading time, myself included. Granted, I do have an hour commute both ways so I’ve gotten into the habit of listening to books on tape. And sure, it’s fun and at least in my case it's a more appealing pastime than listening to all the depressing news on NPR, god bless ‘em. But I find listening to books to be a pithy substitute for holding a book in my hands and enjoying the language and the story without any supplemental distractions. Listening – and maybe this is just me since I’m a highly visually-driven learner – I don’t absorb much. I catch my mind drifting even if I am in love with the story. In the car, my attention is inevitably drawn to the traffic and the idiots on the road going 60 in the fast lane at rush hour. As a result, I end up listening to a lot of books I’ve already read so that I don’t have to pay such close attention. I say all this because when I do commit to actually holding and reading a book it absolutely must appeal to me on an almost spiritual level.  And David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks had all the promise of being a fantastic read but for me it fell utterly, pancake-ily flat.

My current reading material of choice is fiction based in reality, with a twist. I prefer strong female leads, intelligent dialogue, and clever description and/or compelling atmosphere. The Bone Clocks had each of these elements in abundance, and yet three months later I was still forcing myself to plow to the end. Generally if I’m not hooked by the first page I drop the book. Period. But The Bone Clocks had a great introduction, and maybe that in itself suffices as the reason I committed to finishing - guess I just kept hoping that, like a sickly child, it would one day get better again.

Chapter one was solid, following a tempestuous British teenager named Holly Sykes who, at the outset, runs away from home after a fight with her mother. This process reveals that Holly suffers from an undiagnosed condition, namely she sees and hear things that no one else can. She has visions and hears strange voices, voices she nicknames "the Radio People". She also has an equally mysterious younger brother who listens to Chinese radio and draws intricate mazes for her to memorize. Mitchell’s descriptions of the Gravesend riverside, the people Holly meets there, and his revelations into Holly’s own character are excellent - I mean he nails 'angsty teenager' – and I found myself noting down fabulously crafted lines early on, like this classy metaphor, for instance: ‘There's a moon sharp enough to cut your finger on.’ And later, ‘”Half of me wants to hit you with something metal." She sounds serious. "So does the other half."’

But then, Book One ends and he’s driving us into a new character’s POV [ point of view ] . OK, I can roll with that. I mean, many of my favorite books employ this tactic, including 1Q84, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Even my own first attempt at writing fiction in the form of a YA novel swapped between characters. Except this time, I hate the new character. Sure, sure he’s well written, I suppose – Mitchell knows how to develop a voice, let me tell you. So he’s a believable, if not an utterly twatty character. But I can’t get behind him or like who he is, and I can like jerky characters if the author gives you the chance to learn about them. Yet we aren’t given that chance because soon enough Book 2 is over and we’re on to yet another, even less-likable character’s POV. We never get to revisit the story from Holly’s perspective, either. She makes spotlight appearances in each of the other narratives but she’s always riding in the side car. In all of this, Holly was the only character I enjoyed reading, but we barely get a taste of who she is, or her strange past, before we’re passed like an active hand grenade to the next story-teller.

I mentioned a ‘twist’. I’m all thumbs up for twists. The book cover version was what piqued my curiosity in this capacity, hoping to discover how the voices speaking to Holly played into the story and how her younger brother’s disappearance affects her, meaning beyond basic grief and what’s expected of a sister whose brother's gone missing [ which is about all we end up with ] . I want to know how the emotions drive Holly, how it drives the plot. And yet, the happenings in Book One suddenly feel like an afterthought in the second. Then we find out the twist is deeper than we thought. In fact, the underlying, hidden theme of this novel is atemporality, meaning beings who cannot die but continue to be reborn. Then there’s the millennia-old battle between atemporals versus those who cannot die thanks to dark magic – simply put – which is discussed but ends up playing backdrop to other, less interesting plots. This could've been another fantastic basis upon which to develop a straight narrative but again it feels messy, secondary to…what? In my mind, nothing really carried this story other than the dialogue. Yes, I love character-driven fiction, but characters floating in the mist feels frustrating to a reader. I mean, this is a world-renowned author who was the second writer to contribute to the Future Library project, and yet I couldn’t find a likable line to trace throughout this novel.

More confusing still was the ending. Suddenly, we’re tossed from the first 5/6 of the novel existing in the modern [ semi ] predictable world to the last 1/6 happening in a post-apocalyptic near future, utterly out of nowhere. It doesn't flow from the prior section; it feels forced and unnatural. Particularly since the only purpose it serves is to reintroduce a character you suspected had died [ once and for all ] who comes to the rescue in the final hour.

And yes, I get that these 'skipping around' and 'semi-world-building' tactics are kind of Mitchell’s thing [ for an even more challenging-to-follow read that skips between characters and worlds with little coherent connection, check out his book Cloud Atlas – a book, I should note, I could not finish ] . But for the enjoyment of reading’s sake these approaches feel more like an author’s exploration of setting in draft form rather than something that should be included in the final product. Again, in the way it was written it all felt very real and believable outside the context of the whole. Each part of The Bone Clocks [ and Cloud Atlas ] represents a finely crafted world with characters to match, and I envy his ability there. But artistically speaking, I wanted the work to reach beyond those trace elements. I wanted to like the whole package, not just the superficial.

To me, the book felt loose - prioritizing style at the expense of prose - leaving a disappointingly dry piece of writing. Disappointing, indeed, considering it launched with so much promise. Certainly, Mitchell has the ability to make you like his characters – I truly enjoyed the first few chapters on Holly. But to favor punchy dialogue over content and over deep characters makes for an unsatisfying read, especially when the extra characters fall flat; boring and unlikable. One liners might be fantastic, like this one describing a cool young woman - "short, boyish, and sports a nerdy pair of glasses and a shaven head: electrotherapy chic" - but they can't carry the weight of a novel. A novel can still feel empty when it's hundreds of pages long.

There was one good takeaway point, though [ in addition to some great quotes and witty dialogue ] in the form of writing advice and a writing prompt. Given by a character who’s a down-n-out writer within the novel itself, it's advised that amateur storytellers “grade every simile and metaphor from one star to five, and remove any threes or below.” So I went ahead and tried out the following prompt just for fun in one of my own pieces. After all, I am still learning to develop character voice. The prompt went like this: choose five characters from your novel and write from their first person POV, having them describe themselves in their own words – what they like, dislike, their past, family, their drives and motivations, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, etc., using the context to hint at their quirks and define their vocabulary and manner of speaking. I found this to be a helpful exercise even though I’ve been writing only in third person so far.

In conclusion, if you read and do like The Bone Clocks check out Slade House in which Mitchell revisits the same universe and a few of the same characters. Evidently he keeps track of all Marinus's many lives in a notebook behind the scenes.