I hesitate to call this a book review, so I will just characterize it as my thoughts after reading David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. This is one of the books on my MFA reading list, but I won’t actually be doing a close reading essay on this book. It did help me consider David Mitchell’s strengths and weakness. That said, if you haven’t read The Bone Clocks, but you do plan to read it and don’t want the story spoiled, you may want to skip this post.
The only other book that I have read of Mitchell’s is Cloud Atlas (and I will probably get heat for this, but I actually enjoyed the movie better – that is an entirely different conversation however). I know that Mitchell writes all of his novels in the same world with characters appearing in multiple novels. I do enjoy his writing enough to probably fill in with the other books that I haven’t read yet. Additionally, the timeline seems to coincide between novels as well. For instance, at the end of The Bone Clocks, Marinus discusses the fact that Iceland has a think tank called “Prescience” which directly links to Cloud Atlas‘s final society. There are other connections as well, such as the nuclear meltdowns that occurred in The Bone Clocks and the radiation poisoning that is happening in Cloud Atlas as a result of similar problems. Finally, the name of the government that rises up after the “Endarkment” in The Bone Clocks is called “Stability” which fits with Cloud Atlas’s “Unity.”
All of these little details are fun for readers who have read both books, but I do think that Mitchell took a large departure here in The Bone Clocks, and this may be a criticism that I have seen elsewhere, but the layering of the war between the Anchorites and the Horologists over the life of Holly Sykes and the crumbling of modern society was disorienting. As the book progressed, I found myself wondering how everything was connected together, how each character previously featured was faring (it was really disappointing for instance that we spend an entire section from Ed’s perspective, and then it turns out in the next section he has died off screen year ago), and how all of these questions were going to be answered. At the end, I was left with questions, specifically regarding The Script and Counterscript which were never answered (although perhaps a future book will fill us in) and a frustrating sense that the entire last section was thrown in solely to connect to Cloud Atlas. As someone who read Cloud Atlas, this section made sense to me (although it was something of a bizarre and depressing turn considering the big battle between the Anchorites and Horologists). However, if the reader had never picked up another David Mitchell book, I feel like the ending would have seemed very disconnected from the rest of the story.
It kept me reading, but, having just read The Left Hand of Darkness, perhaps I am just sensitive to world-building, but I can’t help but think that the interruptions from the Anchorites and Horologists were jarring rather than fluid. The plot was incredibly complex and incredibly odd, but in some parts, the “powers” of the “Atemporal” characters was gimmicky. This feeling was not lessened by the fact that the entire story leads us to believe that the war between the Atemporal factions is the primary focus of this story. Holly’s entire life is guided by their battle. I think David Mitchell wanted to leave us with the feeling that Holly was essentially an avatar for all of humanity. As the Atemporals battled amongst themselves, all of the “Bone Clocks” (regular humans) and humanity as a whole was dying. Holly’s cancer could be a metaphor for all of society.
That is an interesting theme. But, at the end, Mitchell spends so much time drumming into us our future, how we’ve ruined the planet, how we’ve squandered resources, been selfish, and ignored our problems, that I was left feeling like the entire novel up through the fifth section was about one thing and the last section was about something entirely different. I think there was an attempt to link this destructive tendency of humanity throughout the novel through the stories of characters like Ed Brubeck, but it didn’t feel like it linked fluidly to me with the total collapse later – maybe if there had been more links in the 2025 sections. For instance, Aoife died off screen again, along with Ed. It lowered the stakes and the consequences for Holly, and thus the reader did not feel as connected to the ending as I think Mitchell intended.
That said, I did get a bit choked up when Marinus took Lorelai and left for Iceland, but after it was over, I was left feeling a little bit unsatisfied, like Mitchell had tried too hard to make the Atemporal war relevant to humanity in some way, but I just didn’t know how to connect it. The Horologists sacrificed themselves to stop the Anchorites from continuing to “decant” humanity, but in the next section, we feel like, “So what? That sacrifice meant nothing obviously, because humanity is going down the toilet.” Maybe that is the point, but it was a really long novel to make a very short point.
Maybe the point is that the Horologists and Anchorites were so wrapped up their petty war that they didn’t notice the problems of humanity, but again, I didn’t get any sense of remorse or closure on that point from Marinus’s perspective.
So, my conclusion is: I really enjoyed this book. I think it was well-written, and the fantasy aspects were interesting. However, I didn’t think it was as cohesive as Cloud Atlas, and parts seemed entirely designed to force The Bone Clocks into the overall world built in the other novels.
About the Photograph: Taken at Harry Potter Studio Tour London on December 30, 2014.
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I have to agree with most of what you say. I think there’s a hint as to Mitchell’s intent in the Crispin Herschey section (how incongruous does that feel by the end of the book?!) where the fictional author is ridiculous by his publisher for proposing to write a book that’s “half fantasy”. “A novel can’t be HALF fantasy,” the publisher tells him. Yet it seems like is exactly what Mitchell has tried to write. The story of the Atemporals doesn’t occupy enough of the pages to be the of the book. It’s half of the book, with the other half being the otherwise fairly mundane tales of Holly Sykes, Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, et al.
I don’t know that it really works but I enjoyed the book all the same.