Monday, December 22, 2014

Book review: The Bone Clocks

David Mitchell's sixth novel, The Bone Clocks, was an inevitable pick for my book club. We'd already read three of his previous novels (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Cloud Atlas, and Ghostwritten) all of which were unanimously and thoroughly enjoyed. So Mitchell's latest seemed like a sure thing.

Well, although the novel is certainly an entertaining read, it failed to meet my expectations in some ways. And, among the members of my book club, I'm not alone. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Bone Clocks is the story of (among other things) an Irish woman named Holly Sykes. Rather than try to summarize the plot myself, I'll rely on Sceptre, David Mitchell's publisher:
In 1984, teenager Holly Sykes runs away from home, a Gravesend pub. Sixty years later, she is to be found in the far west of Ireland, raising a granddaughter as the world's climate collapses. In between, Holly is encountered as a barmaid in a Swiss resort by an undergraduate sociopath in 1991; has a child with a foreign correspondent covering the Iraq War in 2003; and, widowed, becomes the confidante of a self-obsessed author of fading powers and reputation during the present decade. Yet these changing personae are only part of the story, as Holly’s life is repeatedly intersected by a slow-motion war between a cult of predatory soul-decanters and a band of vigilantes led by one Doctor Marinus. Holly begins as an unwitting pawn in this war – but may prove to be its decisive weapon.
A much better synopsis than I could provide, with the added benefit that I can now proceed to what it is I like about the novel, and what I found lacking.

What I liked about the novel, first and foremost I suppose, is that it is David Mitchell. The man has a sublime talent for writing engaging, vivid prose. His dialog is so sharp it could slice sponge cake. The worlds he creates are not only mind-blowing but, more importantly, consistent and true to their own laws.

Which brings up another aspect of the novel that I particularly enjoyed: the continued unveiling of the David Mitchell universe. The Bone Clocks makes reference (in subtle ways) to all of the other David Mitchell novels published to date. The book is chock full of these "Easter eggs." I won't mention any specifics (wouldn't want to reveal any spoilers), but suffice it to say, I was regularly delighted, as I read this book, to discover that various characters were the very same that appeared in Black Swan Green or number9dream or Ghostwritten. Scenes that occurred in other novels are referenced in The Bone Clocks. I noticed many such references while reading this book, and I'm quite sure there are many I missed.

Also, The Bone Clocks is a contemporary novel in every sense of the word. Holly, the protagonist, is a teenager in 1984, which makes her a few years younger than me. At the end of the novel, she's in her sunset years living in a world that seems all too inevitable. Well, God willing, I'll live to see the accuracy of David Mitchell's future and I hope he's wrong!

What I didn't like about the novel: I found the long expository conversations about the nature of the two supernatural factions, the soul-decanters and the reincarnating vigilantes, to be tedious and a bit confusing. I'm sure David Mitchell has it all sorted in his head, and he relates the information through dialog rather than taking the easy way out (the way Margaret Atwood did with Oryx and Crake). Nonetheless, once the idea is fully exposed, it loses some of its intrigue. I found it much more tantalizing in Mitchell's other novels, when readers could only guess at the nature of the strange beings that appear from time to time.

But mostly, what I found disappointing about the novel was this: running throughout, there is a whiff (and just a whiff, mind you) of self-satisfaction. David Mitchell is widely acknowledged as one of the day's gifted novelists and I'm one of his biggest fans. But success is heady stuff. Or maybe it is that, when a writer attains a certain level of success, his editors become a bit more reluctant to use their red pens. In any case, The Bone Clocks seemed less "tight," less perfected than Mitchell's previous books.

That's the problem with being a virtuoso, I suppose. When you set the bar that high, people come to expect so much.

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