The Bone Clocks is David Mitchell’s latest work of almost-but-not-quite fantasy. Nobody wraps elements of the fantastic into the setting of modern life as seamlessly as Mitchell does. So much so that if the person sitting next to me on the plane in a few weeks announces that they’re an atemporal, one of the immortals from The Bone Clocks, I might not even be surprised.
A Bone Clock is a normal human being, counting down the years to their death. But in Mitchell’s world, there are a few individuals who are something more. Referred to as atemporals, these people come back when they die (in the case of Horologists), or they hold off the effects of the passage of time by consuming the souls of other rare psychoactive individuals (in the case of Anchorites). Horologists do not choose to be what they are, and find the existence of Anchorites, who prolong their lives at the expense of others, unacceptable. Hence: War.
A war carried out in hiding, among a very few individuals. A war that feels important because we see it up close, but is actually dwarfed in its effects on the world at large by the evolution of global politics and the climate over the novel’s span. The story is told within the lifetime and, in two of the six parts, from the point of view of Holly Sykes, an intelligent 15-year-old when we first meet her, who elopes after an argument with her mother, only to discover that her boyfriend is cheating on her, causing her to elope farther than she at first wanted to.
During her journey away from home, Holly will come into contact with the conflict between Anchorites and Horologists, and will become a piece on the chessboard of their war. This is due to more than just coincidence, and involves her own gifts as well as her brother’s. Much of what happens will only be understandable with hindsight from later on in the novel, because just when it feels as though we’re getting enough information to make sense of it all, the scene changes. Mitchell does what he does best, and we find ourselves following a different story in a different place, from the point of view of a different person, whose narrative will inevitably cross Holly Sykes’s at some point.
Mitchell pulls off point-of-view changes masterfully, leaving important unanswered questions hanging for quite some time as our attention is drawn to other events that affect another character’s life. He adroitly nuances right and wrong in the minds of young protagonists, setting them on trajectories in a way that presages much more pronounced moral positions at later points in their lives, when we meet them again, but keeps both his protagonists and antagonists human, because having seen the world through their eyes, we know they are not cut from cloth of a single colour.
The tapestry is woven with care and with a strong sense of how much ambiguity the reader can cope with before he is overwhelmed by open questions. Nevertheless, this is a book that requires your attention, and a failure of attention will be paid for in confusion as things are revealed later on. A serious book, you might call it.
Relevant subplots are thick on the ground, from the resentment between a writer and the reviewer who trashed his book in public to the origin stories of some of the atemporals in the Russia of several hundred years ago. Mitchell has given himself (as he did in Cloud Atlas), a story mechanic that gives him licence to visit any time in history and weave his story in the context of his choosing, and he uses his superpower to great effect.
Mitchell avoids holistic denouements. At no point do we feel that a subplot or story thread is completely “wrapped up”. True to reality, stories continue until their motivating protagonists die, or move on to other endeavours. Conclusions are messy compromises that don’t entirely satisfy our desire to see evil punished and good rewarded. Nevertheless, an undercurrent of individuals getting their just desserts does more or less permeate the novel, even if our heroes end up having less than idyllic lives and some of our antagonists deserve far more than they eventually get. Perhaps it is this very softness in the telling of the end of the story that made me put the book down feeling sorry that it had ended. There had been no major battle, the victors were not standing on the corpses of their fallen foes, and yet the story was finished, insofar as the threads that we were given at the beginning were concerned. It wasn’t so much anticlimactic as just more believable.
Will this win the World Fantasy Awards? I have no idea. I think it perhaps unlikely, because I’m not sure this is what fantasy readers are necessarily looking for. I think this could win some mainstream awards despite the strong thread of speculative fiction that runs through the entire novel. I might get shot for saying this, but I think this is a level of literature above what most fantasy books seek to achieve. Unsurprising perhaps, this is after all the novelist who gave us Cloud Atlas, which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, the Nebula, Locus and Arthur C. Clark awards for best novel, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. Few people will say that The Bone Clocks was not a very good book, but there are a lot of voters out there who prefer Gandalf to Holly Sykes.
To be clear, I think this book is spectacular, but hard to compare to other works of “fantasy”, as it if doesn’t wholly belong in the genre. I enjoyed it in a different way to how I enjoy most of my fantasy and science fiction. It provokes reflection on the motivations of characters and the interactions these motivations engender in a far more complex way than the more two-dimensional individuals who populate many of my favourite novels. It also, however, lacks many of the whiz-bang special effects that I quite enjoy in these genres, or the resounding conclusion that’s timed to coincide with the crescendo of the accompanying musical score. Perhaps not for all audiences then.
That said, in the hands of a good screenwriter, with a few liberties taken with the pacing and the story, this could make one hell of a movie. Someone call Christopher Nolan! I’d pay good money to watch that.