on 29 April 2015
It's taken me a few days to let this settle enough that I can come back and review it. This is a rich and multi layered novel, bursting with realistic Voice. I loved it almost as much as Cloud Atlas - and will likely re-read this one as well in time.
What's done exceptionally well here, is the engaging depiction of the mundane, everyday world which every so often, twitches like a curtain and reveals another darker, more exotic and mystical world underneath. Getting the two plots (which on fact are one plot made to look like two initially) to sit side by side so seamlessly is a true demonstration of skill.
This is told in six parts and it's not until part five that we really see the truly supernatural/ fantasy element fully. Holly Sykes is the character that binds the whole together and I think she is now one of my favorite of Mitchell's characters.
The only place I stumbled a bit was part six - it was such a come down after part five. However on reflection I don't see how it could have ended any other way - it's where all the sub plots and main plots were leading the whole time. There are familiar themes from Mitchell's work here - emancipation and slavery, the way human society/ civilization self cannabalizes itself, what is the nature and meaning of love. The biggest theme here though is life and death and the balance of and acceptance of both.
One of the things I especially liked was the tiny nods to the author's other books, I like the feeling that they are all part of a specific world we've been allowed to enter.
Overall I'd highly recommend this. It was absolutely stunning.
on 26 May 2015
The imagination of this man knows no bounds. Previous readers of his work will be familiar with his episodic writing that links people and places and stories across time, and with his reuse of characters from his previous work, and 'The Bone Clocks' continues in this vein. There are six episodes that have their own little crises, each about a decade apart, which all link in to an overarching epic plot.
If this is your first time reading David Mitchell, then I would probably recommend that you read his other books first (or at least 'Ghostwritten' and 'Cloud Atlas') or to be prepared to want to read this book again after you have.
It's an intricate, enthralling world that he creates with wonderful and likeable characters, and the themes throughout will haunt your memories for many years to come. I'm gearing up to reread this again, having not been able to get it out of my mind for the last 9 months!
David Mitchell has been a stand-out author for me since I first read 'Cloud Atlas', and 'The Bone Clocks' does not disappoint.
on 4 November 2015
A friend suggested I read this after I told her how good I thought the novel “15 lives of Harry August” was as it also has a “time travel” element in it. I really enjoyed his novel “1000 autumns” so looked forward to reading this.
This novel is bursting with imaginative characters and storylines.
Initially, there’s very little hint of anything fantastical as we follow the life of Holly a teenager in the 1980’s going through a rough time with her mum, leaving home and following her friend’s advice finding work on a fruit farm. She does meet an eccentric old lady on her journey but her significance isn’t obvious until later in the novel.
The novel then follows in turn, a group of university students and a distinguished author’s new book release. In these chapters, characters are introduced who behave a little strangely and the novel starts to take a more surreal turn.
I don’t read a lot of sci-fi or fantasy novels and found the last third of the book a bit tough going with all its references to various cults and their individual language and terminology. However because I was already engaged with the characters and the story I just carried on reading. In particular I thought the sections with the character Crispin really amusing and entertaining.
Mitchell is a fantastically inventive writer and having read a few books recently of great length I find his style of writing is one where I’m constantly engaged with his characters and plotlines and never feel the urge to skip through pages in boredom. 3.5stars
on 3 October 2014
One of the characters in this novel of many narrators is Crispin Hershey, an author whose books clearly owe something of a debt to Mitchell’s own. So when Crispin is constantly offended that everyone thinks his latest offerings aren’t up to the standards of his greatest literary and commercial success, it seems fair to say that it’s something that plays on Mitchell’s mind. It therefore makes me feel slightly guilty to say that if I were going to sum up this book in one sentence (which I’m not – concision was never one of my strong points) it would be: “a lot like Cloud Atlas, but not quite as good.”
There’s something about Mitchell’s way with words and way with a story that makes me enjoy everything he writes, whatever the genre and style. Cloud Atlas is one of my all time favourite novels, but I also enjoyed the relatively straightforward narrative structure of his more recent offerings, Black Swan Green and the Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Underneath all the cleverness, he’s fundamentally got a fantastic imagination and an amazing ability to tell a story.
Nonetheless, I was excited to see that here, Mitchell had returned back to the style of his earlier works and to what (I think) he does best: short stories that somehow coalesce into a complete novel, genre-bending and experiments with style, complex structures and narrative devices, and a blurring of the lines between literary and genre fiction.
That said, while you would never exactly describe the Bone Clocks as a conventional novel, it was actually rather lighter on tricksy devices than I had anticipated.
On the positive side, it felt much less like a cleverly linked combination of short stories than some of Mitchell’s books, and more like a coherent plot that happened to have several narrators and go off at a few tangents. Basically, it’s the story of Holly Syke’s life from 16 to 75, mixed with the story of an ancient battle between the Anchorites and the Horologists. In some sections, Holly was front and centre whereas in others she made little more than a cameo appearance. Similarly, some sections were basically full blown fantasy, while in others, this paranormal war was only hinted at. But the two poles of Holly and Horologists held the novel together as a coherent whole rather more effectively than comet birthmarks or ghosts really managed in earlier works.
On the less positive side, most of the chapters - despite having different first person narrators – felt oddly similar to each other. They were all told using a linear, first person narrative and used a broadly modern literary style. I rather missed the real jumping around between forms – now a diary, now an interview, now letters – and styles that so wowed me in earlier works. Chapter Five, cheerfully abandons the “basically realism but there are a few weird things going on” approach in favour of just giving into the temptation to write things like, “I can invoke Shaded Way acts without disturbing the Chapel, but the Cathar’ll detect psychosoterica from the far side of the Schism.” But while this chapter shattered the genre divide (and there’s nothing I love more than when serious writers bring a bit of fantasy into their novels), it still stuck to the same approach. This isn’t an attack. They were good stories, the succession of first person narrators had engaging and differentiated voices, the modern literary style was smoothly executed. It’s just that it didn’t amaze me, and I was longing to be amazed.
It’s always something of an inevitability with this sort of book that there are going to be sections you like more than others. Here, I struggled with the overly long and overly self-indulgent section about the author, and even more so with the rather preachy “global warming is a bad thing” end section. But I loved Holly’s working class teenager in the eighties bit and the wonderful noughties section that cut back and forth between a war reporter’s time in Iraq and time at a family wedding as he weighed up the relative importance of family and duty. It’s inevitably going to divide people, but personally, I also loved the hardcore fantasy section. Generally, I find that literary writers are rubbish at this sort of thing, but I thought Mitchell cobbled together an interesting enough mythos. Oh, and for anyone who's ever read one of my books, I suspect it goes without saying that I loved the section about the posh, handsome and caddish Oxbridge student who seduces our heroine and then joins an evil cult that grants him eternal life. I once claimed that Mitchell could take any writer’s novel and write a better version of it in one chapter. Now I know how it feels when it happens to you!
Finally, maybe it’s just my imagination or my slight obsession with that book, but at times, I sort of felt that Mitchell was rehashing characters from Cloud Atlas. One of the nicest things about being a Serious Author is that people tend to give you the benefit of the doubt. If a real fantasy author had several characters in his new book that were rather similar to characters in an earlier work, he’d be accused of laziness and predictability. If Mitchell has done so, I can only assume that it’s some clever device. But come on. Was Hugo Lamb not just a 1990s Robert Frobisher? Wasn’t cynical author Crispin just a tad reminiscent of cynical agent Timothy Cavendish? And brave war reporter Ed seemed to take a similar approach to life as brave crime reporter Luisa. And actually, those three stories come in the same order in both books, which probably means our too clever for his own good author is doing it on purpose.
This may be the longest review I’ve ever written, and I think that’s indicative of both the complexity of the book – which makes it very hard to summarise or reach an overall conclusion on – and my rather conflicted feelings, between admiring what Mitchell has done, and somewhat unfairly wishing that he’d done a little more. I don’t think this book is for everyone – the fantasy element will put some people off, while the unconventional structure will drive others away. But if you can bear a combination of fantasy subplot and state of the world pretentions, give it a go. There are some flaws and misteps, but there’s also both brilliant storytelling and real literary cleverness waiting inside.
on 6 September 2015
Where to begin? This novel defies categorisation and is really, really difficult to describe without giving away too much of the plot. So here goes.
This huge book (613 pages) is divided into 6 novellas, one for each decade of Holly Sykes' life (apart from her first decade where nothing happens so it's covered in the first chapter). The first chapter is set in 1984, where Holly leads a pretty normal life until she runs away at 15, meets an old lady on a pier, is given a lift by a socialist couple, witnesses their massacre, gets a job on a strawberry farm and finds out her little brother is missing. Woah there, witnesses their massacre? Is this a crime novel, a murder mystery? Neither, carry on reading.
Fast forward to 1991, now we're learning about a group of Cambridge students who go skiing for New Years, they get in trouble with some prostitutes and one (Hugo) runs away leaving the others to pick up the peices. He has a one-night stand with a waitress then gets offered the deal of a lifetime. How is this related to Holly? Well she's the waitress, yes, she's making a cameo appearance in her own book. So maybe she's not the main character?
Next chapter is in 2004, Holly now has a daughter with Ed (an old school friend who makes an appearance in the first chapter) and this is Ed's story of his journalist job in Iraq. I could go on and tell you exactly what happens in each chapter, but to save time I'll gloss over them and leave you a few surprises to enjoy.
So, you get the jist, each chapter is set a decade (more or less) apart and Holly will eventually turn up in them. You will end up wondering if you need to remember all these characters (there are a lot) don't worry you don't. By chapter five, you'll be starting to wonder where on earth is this going, don't worry, you're about to find out. Suffice to say everything is about to change, just keep your cool and keep reading.
As one of Mitchell's characters says, "A novel can't be half-fantasy just like a woman can't be half-pregnant" (or there-abouts), this novel is totally half-fantasy and it's brilliant. I understand why this novel is so long, Mitchell just about dumped his brain and shoe-horns everything he wants to make a point about into it (how we're screwing the environment, how authors really feel about their books, how society is totally age focussed and the lengths people will go to to stop it, etc).
If you read this novel, don't try to guess where the story is going, don't try to catagorise it, just appreciate you're reading the thoughts of a truly experimental author who defies explanation. Enjoy.
If you liked this, try Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill.
on 4 March 2015
Mitchell appeared on most people's radars with the publication, and subsequent movie adaptation, of Cloud Atlas, the delightfully nebulous Russian Stacking doll of a novel that was as fascinating as it was frustrating. The truth is that Mitchell is a highly divisive writer; you love him or you hate him. Cloud Atlas remains one of my favourite books, while my mother despaired when reading it for her book club.
The Bone Clocks meets all the expectations that Mitchel's work has garnered. Complex, mercurial, and downright weird, the novel follows the life of Holly Sykes from a sixteen year-old runaway in the 1980s through to her old age in 2045. Of course, Mitchell spins in plenty of weirdness. As with Cloud Atlas, Mitchell uses this new work to explore questions of the soul and reincarnation, although in a more overtly fantasy tone as the plot progresses. The continual shift in perspectives between characters (Holly's boyfriend, friend, partner, and Holly herself all tell a section from their own perspective) can sometimes feel a bit confusing. Mitchell is has mastered the art of withholding information, giving readers just enough detail to keep us hooked without giving anything away. The final section, focusing on the collapse of Western civilisation, the reversion to a pre-industrial Europe and the end of modern technology, is a little hard to swallow not because it is outlandish, but precisely because of the sense of realism. Mitchell expertly captures the apathetic pessimism of a small community as the lights go out and society collapses in the distance. The final, hopeful note of the novel is, in itself, a bitter pill with only a thin sugar coating; the escape and survival of the young exchanged for the inevitable decline and death of the old.
It's difficult to review this, when the review has already been provided by the author himself in the middle of the book:
"One: [the author] is so bent on avoiding cliche that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: the fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book's State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look. Three: what surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are running dry than a writer creating a writer-character?"
This quote comes from the central part of the Crispin Hershey section and in this first person narrative of the author, we have all the possible criticisms written out for us, in brilliantly funny prose. This has been nominated for the Man Booker and feted by the critics - what more can anyone say about it?
For myself, all I can say is that it was one of the most thoroughly enjoyable books I have read, but it also has an intensely serious topic at its heart : how to cope with the certainty of your own mortality? There are 5 novellas here - split into 6 parts or chapters - Holly gets her narrative story split at the beginning and end - at the beginning and end of her life. All the parts are inextricably linked (although it's not always immediately obvious how) but you can see this as all just about Holly - her story. However, we get drawn into the stories of 4 other characters and as readers, we get into their minds/heads in the way that the Horologists/Anchorites do in the "fantasy" elements of the story.
We get inside 3 men who come to love Holly - Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck and Crispin Hershey. None of these men are totally sympathetic characters, but through their very real stories we come to have an understanding and in many ways it is their relationship with Holly that "redeems" them and turns them into people we can actually like. The other character we get to know is "Marinus" who also appeared in Mitchell's previous novel. Mitchell has said that he already has 5 novels ahead planned and he is not writing individual books, but these are all parts/glimpses of one big "UberNovel"!
Marinus inhabits the fantasy world which links this particular book and which stays mostly in the background with just tantalisingly brief glimpses until chapter 5 - when we are thrown headlong into the gripping and mesmerising battle for the soul of humanity. I found that coming after the long, realistic chapters this flew by in a whirlwind of exposition and action - it was the dramatic climax of a long symphony (by Mahler possibly?) with all the forces of massed brass and percussion creating a huge resolution. After that, Holly's old age in Ireland was a calm coda and return to real life with it's everyday mundane tasks...slightly depressing, but just as we are settling into the gradual decline of a natural old age - there is a final dramatic twist and abrupt close with the promise of Marinus' return.
What is it all about, is it a fantasy novel? Well yes - in the face of the inevitability of death, we all invent our own fantasies to cope, to keep us going on. We have to invent our own realities and create our own meanings - nobody else is going to give these to us. By middle age you can no longer ignore this and that clock is ticking, with no way out - much as we'd like there to be. The Bone Clocks discusses the moral questions associated with this subject. Do we take life away from children by trying to cheat death - what are we passing on to the next generation? Immortality is easy - it's just the "Terms and Conditions" that are complicated. If we live for now ,with no thought for what happens after and content ourselves with the fantasy that we won't die - then what does that mean for future generations?
All in all a very interesting, philosophical and moral discussion, wrapped up in a very enjoyable romp. I was sad to get to the end and just wanted more, to go back and lean more about these chracters. Can't wait for the next one and will certainly be reading it as soon as it appears.
David Mitchells' new book has a similar "Russian Doll" structure to his earlier book Cloud Atlas which I read ten years ago. At the time it blew me away and it was clear a new literary star was emerging. I bought his new effort on release day.
I am embarrassed to say I did not finish it. I hate not finishing a book after getting to know the characters but I got to page 450, about 100 from the end, and just couldn't go on. It felt, to me, like Mitchell had written himself into a corner and was having difficulty finishing what, up to page 350, had been a very interesting book with believable characters and situations. What started out as a number of distinctly different but linked human stories with fantastical elements, by page 450 had turned into a super hero fest full of psychobabble and exposition for the poor average reader who by now is probably at best confused or at worst completely lost? Page after page of retelling what you have already read suggests to me his editor insisted on some clarification at this point in the book to help readers appreciate what is actually going on.
Another problem for me was the fact that there are a lot of characters to remember. Not only that, but some have multiple names or are sometimes referred to by their first names and sometimes by their surnames. Some characters have more than one name depending on who they are with or who they are talking to. I had to keep “looking people up” and it became a bit of a chore to be honest.
Don’t misunderstand me, The Bone Clocks for some will be utterly enthralling, full of interesting characters and situations, and of course beautifully written. For me however I feel Mitchell lost his way at about page 400 and at this point the tone of the book changed completely. Its humanity, so evident in the first 350 pages disappeared and was replaced by fantastical elements that for me at least were just not interesting enough to invest more time in.
Mitchells books are known for their density and character overload. For most ordinary readers a second or third reading is a must to fully appreciate them. However on this occasion I think I’ll give The Bone Clocks second reading a miss.
I must admit I’m rather disappointed as the first 350 or so pages were great!
on 22 February 2016
Recently I've been reading a lot of the best seller Afghanistan/ Kabul themed books which, although have all been brilliant are all just well written stories in comparison to David Mitchell's works. There isn't a genre big enough for this book.
It is a direct contrast to everything I've read before. It has opened up my mind to not only a new way of thinking but a new way of reading. I am a typical fiction-based-on-realistic-situation type of gal but the intriquate story line has blown my socks off.
Yes there are slower bits, some characters you will not like as much as others- the joy of reading.
I'd highly recommend this book to someone who's a bit bored with the typical top chart literature like me- bit of tragedy, bit of adventure with an underlying romance becomes jaded and tiresome. Take the plunge out of your comfort zone, it's worth it!
I bought cloud atlas years ago and never got around to reading it- now I can't wait to start!
on 19 September 2015
Clearly I am in a minority. I would never have imagined giving a David Mitchell book a mere two stars, but after the triumph of Cloud Atlas and the concise, almost short story-like perfection of Black Swan Green, The Bone Clocks was very disappointing.
In the first two chapters we are introduced to the novel’s two most engaging characters, the younger Holly Sykes and the disreputable Hugo Lamb. This for me is by far the best part of the book. But then it seemed to falter.
I have no doubt that David Mitchell’s research is impeccable, but the character of the grown up Ed Bruebeck, war correspondent, seemed much more of a stereotype than a real person. Almost like someone one might glimpse in front of the camera on a television news report, but not actually know. But this is a small matter compared with what followed.
I was actually taken aback by the crude caricature of Martin Amis in chapter four. Does David Mitchell have some private axe to grind? There is nothing new about authors attacking one another in the pages of their books, and I have read that he has, latterly denied any connection, but I am afraid it is all to obvious. It did leave behind a rather bad taste.
But the real problem for me was chapter five where the story descends into Harry Potter territory. Even David Mitchell’s usually beautifully constructed prose trips over itself as it struggles to describe the rather absurd battle in the chapel. I am not a particular fan of magic realism, but in order for it to work it has to be real. It has to make the extraordinary seem ordinary. Murakami can do this. Mikhail Bulgakov did it before the phrase was even invented. This is just comic book stuff.
The dystopian future in the final chapter seemed rather clichéd and it was a real effort of will a few pages in not to skip to the last page. I’m sure it was better than that, but I was just too jaded by the previous chapter to appreciate it. And yes, the ending was touching.