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Book Review: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (The 2015 World Fantasy Award Winner)

By / November 10, 2015 / no comments

Congratulations to David Mitchell on winning the World Fantasy Award for his novel, The Bone Clocks. But let us not forget that this novel is at least as much science fiction as it is fantasy – perhaps more so.

bone clocksIt’s a novel about immortality; or rather, it is about two forms of immortality that are at war with each other. On the one side there are the Anchorites. We’ve encountered them before in a remote monastery in 18th century Japan in Mitchell’s previous novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. They feed on what I suppose we must call the living essence of their human victims, and each time they feed it extends their lives. They are, essentially, vampiric. Opposing them are the Horologists, who live a natural lifespan, then are reborn in another body, but with all the memories and wisdom of their previous existence. We met them in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet also, or rather, we met Dr Marinus who, we only discover now, is actually one of the Horologists. Okay, so far so familiar, not to say hackneyed. It’s all too easy to imagine what a clunky mess most genre writers would make of this; but Mitchell avoids the pitfalls, for the most part at least.

He does this quite simply by pushing the war of the immortals into the background. We become aware of it going on, a few times it flares up so that we can’t miss it, but it’s not the central focus of the novel.

The focus is actually on Holly Sykes, starting in 1984 when she is 15 years old and runs away from home. Over just a few days in that summer she wanders through north Kent, helped at one point by a boy who is clearly rather sweet on her, and working for a while on a hop farm. But things happen that, thereafter, she can’t quite remember. She meet a mysterious old woman who asks for refuge, which Holly grants; then she is given a lift by a young couple in their fast car. They take her back to their cottage, where they suddenly turn upon her; but then something happens that leaves dead bodies and a lot of blood behind, but Holly is never able to remember exactly what it is. As readers, we are aware that we have witnessed a brief, violent clash in what we will come to recognise is an eternal battle, but it rises only for a moment to the surface of the novel before subsiding under the relatively calm surface of Holly’s young life once more. Far more important for Holly is that it is at this moment that her beloved younger brother disappears. She glimpses him in a strange vision in a motorway underpass, which leaves her convinced that he is not dead, that there is no closure to this disappearance; and it is this absence that shapes the rest of her life.

In the next section, set in 1991, the focus is on Hugo Lamb, who we also met in Black Swan Green. He’s at Cambridge, but he’s far more interested in money and sex than in learning, and he doesn’t care how he gets the money. He’s a chancer who is prepared to cheat and commit fraud almost recklessly. He meets a strange woman in Cambridge, and ends up following her to a skiing holiday in Switzerland. There he encounters Holly Sykes, who is working in a bar, and they begin a romance that starts to change him. But it can’t last, they split up, the strange woman reels him back in, and he is induced to join the Anchorites.

The third section follows Ed Brubeck who, in 2004, is married to Holly and the father of her daughter, Aoife. But Ed is a war reporter, and even while he and Holly are together at someone else’s wedding he is anxious to get away, to return to Iraq. And when we follow him to the war zone we see how humanity is diminished by war, a resonance that echoes out to inform the eternal conflict.

Each section of the novel has a different narrator, a different tone of voice, such ventriloquism is something that Mitchell has always done well. The fourth section, which begins in 2015, is a comedy of misadventures, following a writer, Crispin Hershey, whose talents and reputation are in decline. A petty act of revenge escalates beyond his intentions and haunts him for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, he still has enough of a reputation to spend his days travelling to book festivals around the globe, where he keeps bumping in to Holly Sykes, who has written a successful work on her psychic experiences. As he is going down in the world, she is going up, and the two strike up an unlikely friendship.

The fifth section, set in 2025 and narrated by Marinus, is where the war of the immortals reaches its climax, but it is emphatically not the climax of the novel. Holly finds herself the centre of a struggle between the Horologists and the Anchorites which comes to a head in what is frankly a rather ludicrous magical battle between the two groups. Mitchell has always played fast and loose with genre, setting up expectations that we are reading one type of story and twisting it so that we end up reading something very different. So far, despite the fantastical events taking place in the background, we have been reading different kinds of mainstream novel: a coming-of-age story, the story of an anti-hero, a war story, a comedy. Now it becomes a straight fantasy, and frankly Mitchell doesn’t handle it with the same assurance.

But then comes the last and, to my mind, the best section, set in 2043, with Holly again taking centre stage. Now an old woman, she is living with her grandchildren in a remote village on the west coast of Ireland. But civilisation has collapsed, various warlords are vying for territory, any resource is precious but also likely to be taken away by whoever has guns. It’s a hard, hand-to-mouth existence, a fairly common science fiction scenario but one which Mitchell handles with a great deal of confidence and originality. It is, all in all, an excellent novel and one well deserving of its award, but to my mind it most comes to life in the first and last sections, the ones in which Holly serves as narrator.


world fantasy awardIncidentally, I am delighted to learn that Mitchell will be the last winner of the World Fantasy Award to receive one of the frankly ugly heads of H.P. Lovecraft. This bust of Lovecraft has been the award for far too long now, and the old racist really is not a fitting symbol for any branch of literature in our modern multi-cultural world. No word yet on what will replace it, but frankly anything has to be better than this.

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