AT the start of The Bone Clocks, Holly Sykes seems to be an ordinary enough teenager: living with her parents in Kent, certain she knows better than her mother, certain that her older boyfriend is the one, certain that the voices she used to hear in her head, the “Radio People,” were just her active childhood imagination.
Readers unfamiliar with David Mitchell’s nested narratives (or even those only familiar with the conventionally told Black Swan Green) may think Holly’s story to be a fairly benign narrative of a standard rebellious teen girl from a small town — a narrative filled with pop culture of the 80s, troubles with mum, the naiveté of a teenager who hides her vulnerability under a shell of aggressive confidence, the bravado of a feisty 15-year-old, so much growing still to do.
Each of these factors adds to the fantastic voice Mitchell has created for teen Holly, but expecting this to be the only skill Mitchell has would be doing him a great injustice. The Bone Clocks is about Holly Sykes, yes, but it is also about a larger macrocosm, a world greater than ours yet hidden within ours, a world to which Mitchell leads us with breadcrumbs sprinkled skillfully through Holly’s life, a world where immortals battle against each other.
The breadcrumbs begin with what Holly calls the “nutso” part of her mind, the part where the “Radio People” whisper to her, the part where a woman called Miss Constantine shows up in her bedroom and hurts the bully who has bothered Holly. But soon the voices and the daymares get too much for the young girl, who is taken to a specialist, a Doctor Marinus whose treatment from the “old country” seals off the voices in Holly’s mind.
From then on she leads what seems to be an average life, with the only thing that sets her family apart from others being her youngest brother Jacko, who is a bit of a changeling child after surviving a childhood illness. Jacko doesn’t always seem to be all there but every so often “who he really is smiles out at [Holly] through the blacks of Jacko’s eyes, like someone watching you from a train zipping past.”
One ordinary day, after a fight with her mother, Holly decides to run away from home, setting wheels in motion for a larger, more complicated story. Jacko draws Holly a complex labyrinth and insists she memorise the way to the middle. An immortal being in the guise of an old woman fishing by the harbour offers Holly green tea for “asylum” and somehow seems to imprint a clue into Holly’s memory. Both these incidents are classic Mitchell — little clues that are much bigger on the inside.
The Bone Clocks feels like six different stories or novelettes, each related in some way to Holly. Each section of the book gives us a perspective of a different character, with Holly as the centre of gravity in the larger narrative arc. The first and last chapters are narrated by Holly herself, bookends set in 1984 and 2043, respectively. In between these are the stories of Hugo Lamb, a scholarship student at Oxford whose sly manipulations of his friends lead him to both meet Holly and the immortals who inform the macrocosm of the story; Ed Brubeck, childhood friend and father of Holly’s daughter, and a journalist still reeling from post-traumatic stress after losing two colleagues in a bombing in Fallujah; Crispin Hershey, the wild child of English literature who eventually befriends Holly but is finding that “in publishing, it’s easier to change your body than it is to switch genre”; and Marinus, one of the immortals who is following the Script, a predestined plan for each of the characters, leading up to a point when “the future looks a lot like the past.” Holly’s part in the Script is set even though she may not have the precognitive abilities she once did. As the immortals tell her, “your voices, your certainties, are silent for you now, but do you remember when it used to insist on something? Maybe the sense was obscure, but the Script refused to change.”
The idea of ‘the Script’ and a battle between two groups of immortal beings that has raged for centuries — with the benign Horologists (who find themselves endlessly reincarnated without knowing why) constantly attempting to erase the “vampiric” Anchorites (who murder innocents in order to drain their psychic energy for their own longevity) — may seem a little esoteric to some.
But throw caution to the cosmic wind, suspend your disbelief and just go with Mitchell. He has a great deal in store for his readers. The final section of the novel is set in the near future of climate change and lack of fossil fuels, an almost lawless world with a much older Holly knowing that “we live on, as long as there are people to live on in.” It’s strong enough to be its own novel one day and it would be exciting to see Mitchell tackle the plotting for an entire novel about a future dystopia, a place where “Our hunger for our loved ones and our lost world is as sharp as grief; it howls to be fed.”
A great many reviews have (annoyingly, frustratingly) referred to parts of The Bone Clocks as Mitchell “genre slumming it” — an insulting, strange term really only used by those critics who seem to refuse to open their minds to anything other than what they consider ‘literary realism’.
Mitchell has always written of cosmic connections, using interlinked narratives and histories, little Easter eggs planted in the subconscious of his characters and his readers; he has always had control over intricate structures and elaborate plotting devices that let him blur genre divides. To attempt to reduce the quality of The Bone Clocks by insisting that Mitchell has delved too far into ‘fantasy’ is simply an unfair and invalid statement that says less about the novel than it does about the reader or reviewer’s biases and desires for what they seem to think a writer nominated for the Booker and as lauded as Mitchell should be writing.
It’s joyous and hilarious, then, that Mitchell himself seems to have preempted this reaction to The Bone Clocks, when he writes of a critic’s decimation of Crispin Hershey’s latest novel, “the fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look.” Later, Crispin and his agent have the following conversation:
“‘Crispin. Are you trying to tell me that you’re writing a fantasy novel?’
‘Me? Never! Or it’s only one-third fantasy. Half, at most.’
‘A book can’t be a half fantasy any more than a woman can be half pregnant.’”
But the truth is that a single book can be many, many things and Mitchell has the humour, the imagination and the writing skills to show his readers that with every novel he writes. The Bone Clocks is no less a feat.
The Bone Clocks
By David Mitchell