The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell’s sixth and most daring novel, is a thrilling contemplation of our fears of mortality. Perfectly titled after the bones that are ticking away in all of us, Mitchell makes readers feel at once alive and foredoomed. Master of the big picture, he proves his ability to envision characters’ full lives in an ever expanding meta-world. The Bone Clocks is the broadest of Mitchell’s genre-defying works, acting as a chapter in an all-encompassing über book that leaves no character stranded in a single paperback.
As in Cloud Atlas, the novel is formed by six chapters with six distinct voices and Mitchell succeeds at pulling the reader in at the start of each successive sub-novella. The book starts and ends with Holly Sykes, whose life, from a rebellious teenager in 1984 to an old woman in 2043, is the red thread running through the globe-trotting, memory-filled stories that span thousands of years. As Sykes ripens with the growth of her character; her final chapter is more believable than her teenage angst.
In between, the novel follows Hugo Lamb, an enterprising, sociopathic Cambridge student; Ed Brubeck, a war journalist struggling to reconcile his Iraqi and family life; Crispin Hershey, a middle-aged novelist whose spiralling decline is addicting in a way that only demise can be – this section is Mitchell’s storytelling at its best; and finally a Canadian psychiatrist, who quickly reveals herself to be someone else.
The Bone Clocks dives deeper into fantasy than expected from others Mitchell books; an ambitious endeavor that is a little outside the author’s range and not entirely rewarded. The fantasy world, fortunately, takes up too little space to be the frame that contains the book, but it takes up too much space to be regarded as a natural extension of reality, as was the case in Ghostwritten (Mitchell’s first novel). In the end, the fantasy elements are a conceivable part of the story because they are carefully weaved in thicker and thicker, and provide some delectable puzzle pieces to Mitchell’s meta-universe.
You imagine Mitchell has a web chart on his wall to track his characters’ existence in this universe of which each novel is only a snapshot. Despite the largeness of the world about which he writes, Mitchell manages to zoom in to its tiniest components: the cogs and levers that make the clocks tick. The bond this creates between character and reader makes their reappearance from other books all the more appealing.
Five sixths of this book is a fast-paced adventure that circles the globe, but the remaining sixth stands with its feet on the ground in a village on Ireland’s Atlantic coast. The ending changes the feel of the entire book; in some of his darkest pages to date, Mitchell portrays a future that is terrifyingly real.
This book effortlessly sheds the outlines of setting and genre and Mitchell’s brilliance shows in his ability to get away with almost anything. The Bone Clocks is a grade A book about humanity against the backdrop of time, in which you can easily lose hours.