Gaining front-page coverage in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and the feature review in The New Yorker, this much-anticipated novel delivers a sprawling, exciting, otherworldly epic. However, to keep my own reactions fresh, I have not read any of these reviews before writing mine. I preferred to savor this novel myself, for over the past year I’ve enjoyed each of David Mitchell’s five fictional tales to date. But immensely satisfying as they are, most nag me a little.
Given Mitchell’s knack for inventive plots, appealing characters, engrossing lore, and fantastic adventures, at the end of all but one of his six novels so far, I wanted more. Is this a sign of satisfaction, then? Or a hint that a bit more push was needed by Mitchell to break through from the ranks of a series of impressive tales told with abundant energy and delight, to get to that higher level, where we can agree that his novels will endure as dazzling classics, decades hence?
To begin with, how does The Bone Clocks compare with what’s gone before? Eerie machinations of a global conspiracy that stretches past time and place from Ghostwritten (1999) return. So does Mo Muntervary, a MIT-trained physicist. Roughly 15 years after her appearance in that novel, she lives in County Cork, where The Bone Clocks concludes.
Similar to Ghostwritten and Mitchell’s next work, Number 9 Dream (2001), shape-shifting scenarios entangle logic and reality, if not those novels’ Asian settings. Some of best moments in The Bone Clocks come in exotic locations, but it settles down for most of its 600-plus pages in England, North America, and finally, Ireland.
In Mitchell’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story set in the early ’80s, Black Swan Green (2006), Jason Lamb told how he grew up in the shadow of the Falklands War and his parents’ divorce in suburban Worcestershire. In The Bone Clocks, we meet his cousin, Hugo Lamb. This callow yet likeable “scholarship boy” studies at Cambridge. He learns of a magical offer. He finds out about the “psychosoterica of the Shaded Way.”
This quest comprises the backbone of this novel. The details of confrontations and “decanting” demand attention, but a careful reader will find that Mitchell embeds much of this key material early on, even if makes more sense many pages and many decades later.
Atemporals seek to outwit mortality. These beings drain “psychovoltaic” charges from mortal souls. Humans live merely as “bone clocks”. Our hearts tick away a few years in decaying bodies. Anchorites disdain humans as Normals, who unwillingly and suddenly may feed the “syndicate of soul-thieves”, the few who “under terms and conditions” strive to sustain a provisional immortality.
These sinister forces are countered by the league of even fewer immortals, Horologists who unselfishly seek to protect Normals. As Returnees or as Sojourners, these entities transmigrate into human bodies to continue “metalives”. This faction fends off the Atemporals, who as Carnivores feed off of the living.
The novel begins with a teenaged runaway, who leaves Gravesend on the Thames estuary. She soon crosses paths with this cosmic conspiracy one memorable “time-slip” day in 1984. Her predicament will bring her into the company of Dr. Marinus, who featured in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (2010). Nearly two centuries after that saga of a Dutch trade mission at Nagasaki set around 1800, the doctor’s back. He “returns” as an African Canadian psychologist.
Marinus seeks to penetrate the Swiss fastness where the Atemporals congregate to energize their “twisted version of resurrection” as the Shaded Way. They “consume the psychovoltaic souls of innocent people in order to fuel their own immortality.” The battle between this company of Anchorites and the secret society of Horologists who for four centuries have sought to counter these soul-killing “animacides” leads to spirited displays of unpredictable alliances, betrayals, and mind-games at which Mitchell excels.
As in episodes of Japanese combat, secret societies, natural wonders, dystopian breakdown, harried idealists, and teenaged desire in earlier novels, so here: Mitchell merges set-scenes of imaginative showdowns with intellectual reflection, which will reward the keen and alert reader. Some exposition may seem slow at the time, but varied pace and tone build up suspense gradually. While arguably a few sections might have been trimmed, the experience Mitchell creates for the reader, to revel in the immediacy of unexpected events, benefits from leisure.
I have left out much of an extremely dense plot, so as to avoid spoilers. Much of what may seem baffling when first seen through Holly’s teenaged perspective in part one begins to clarify, if gradually. Meanwhile, we learn through Hugo’s tutelage in part two what the psychic campaign conducted on a different plane than the mundane means to those in this world who as “Engifted” during a period of their own psychological vulnerability find themselves open to suggestion by the Atemporals.
They are lured to a Swiss fortress at Sidelhorn, rich in Templar tradition. “I’m looking through time’s telescope at myself.” So Hugo reflects as he visits an old pensioner, for frustrated Hugo seeks meaning in life. Shown by a Carnivore how to press “the pause button of time”, he faces temptation. An Anchorite promises: “The impossible is negotiable. What is possible is malleable.”
Part three, set a decade ago, shows a more mundane if more deadly conflict for millions. Mitchell portrays the Iraqi chaos from the perspective of Holly’s partner, an driven journalist who calls himself a “war-zone junkie”. This section introduces a Script followed by the Horologists. Later, we learn how “The Script loves foreshadowing.” Most what Mitchell scatters will coalesce, if much delayed.
Part four, with my favorite character, the writer Crispin Hershey, delights. In Cloud Atlas (2004), the foibles of hapless author Timothy Cavendish regaled many as they showed Mitchell’s satirical send-ups of literary self-promotion engagingly and imaginatively. Similarly, we view a reading at the book festival at Hay-on-Wye through Crispin’s jaundiced narration. Doomed to rouse sales for his books, he must face “a contingent of securely pensioned metropolitans stuffed with artisanal fudge and organic cider”.
Using the conceit of successive literary conferences, junkets, or a professorship from 2015-2020, Hershey’s progress and his grumbling maturation reveal Mitchell’s sympathy for a middle-aged mid-list writer’s plight. “Love may be blind, but cohabitation comes with all the latest x-ray gizmos.” Plagued by divorce and driven by ego, through his journeys all over the world, we learn how redemption can be sought, even by a figure first introduced for satirical fun. In this section, Mitchell’s talent shines.
Marinus in part five deepens the confrontations as the Horologists square off against the Anchorites. We learn through Holly how this strife has continued for centuries. We get a glimpse of what Mitchell has promised in a 2010 interview. He intends Marinus to be the central figure (rather than one of five protagonists here) of yet his next novel.
Still, this nimble glimpse late in The Bone Clocks of possible fates for him in other “metalives” makes his present fate less satisfying. Presumably Marinus’ temporal status and immortal shapes, vaguely hinted in Thousand Autumns, elucidated in The Bone Clocks, will gain from the clarity of Mitchell’s novel to come. Meanwhile, one leaves this section, for all of its energy and excitement, with a sense that an escape clause has been left open for Marinus.
As lively and thought-provoking as the final chapter proves, there remains a further letdown. This comes amidst a very dramatic scenario. As a major character confesses: “I’ve seen the future and it’s hungry.” She speaks for us. In her mid-70s, in 2043, she attests to our present folly: “my feckless generation trusted our memories to the Net, so the ’39 Crash was a collective stroke.” The costs of convenience, as skills were left to tablets and mental powers of recall to a Cloud, result in an apocalyptic payback.
What we fuel every time we fill up our tank — the hastening of economic collapse and planetary chaos as the “law of the jungle” returns to plague the survivors on Earth — shows how greed today leads to plagues tomorrow. As Mitchell shows for those struggling in the Irish West in a neo-colonial system where the yuan gives way to barter and banditry, not even the Chinese capitalists can keep the world together.
At last, nature pays back humans for the greed we earlier in the century have indulged in. We’re selling off our descendents’ future, for present pleasure.
A deus-ex-machina arrives, clunkily. A novel of speculative fiction could be defended as saving such contrivances for retrieval by an author. Yet, I felt it was too facile. Still, many may welcome it, as it eases a harrowing chapter. This arrival promises faint hope, if for very few.
The final section depicts a dismal dystopia of post-Endarkenment. By 2043, we watch in rural Ireland the breakdown of Western society without electricity, the Net, or transport as we know it. “Civilization’s like the economy, or Tinkerbell: if people stop believing it’s real, it dies.” Global warming triggers a lapse into the first stages of Earth’s collapsing culture in Cloud Atlas, three centuries on.
Overall, despite those two places where I felt disappointed, Mitchell succeeds in spinning out his complex plot. In retrospect, The Bone Clocks fits together neatly. I anticipate its ambitious storyline may open up nicely into future novels. Then, more past characters, along with Marinus, may return to surprise us.