Books: David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks – Great, if taken seriously

PHUKET: David Mitchell’s third novel, Cloud Atlas, was an audacious break from traditional narrative form: six wildly different characters in divergent, stylistic voices and places ranging from the South Pacific in the 1850s and Los Angeles in the 1930s to the far-distant future in Korea and Hawaii.

Surprisingly, Mitchell followed this with a traditional autobiographical novel of his English youth and a historical novel set in 1799 in Nagasaki, Japan.

Now he is back in form with The Bone Clocks (Random House, New York, 2014. 623pp). Five distinct first-person narratives range from 1984 to 2043 and take place in England, Switzerland, Iraq, Australia, China, Colombia, Canada and Ireland.

The story kicks off with 15-year-old Holly Sykes waking up in her bedroom above the pub owned by her parents in Gravesend, on the banks of the Thames. After a fight with her mother, she runs away from home.

Now things turn weird. An old woman, Ester Little, is fishing off a pier and gives a thirsty Holly green tea from a thermos. She knows Holly’s name and asks for “asylum” in the future.

Holly is psychic. She used to hear “radio voices” in her head, was visited daily by a beautiful and mysterious apparition called Miss Constantin and suffered from delusionary “daymares” until cured by a Chinese doctor, Marinus – who turns out to be a character from Mitchell’s last novel about Nagasaki in 1799.

At the scene of a triple murder, Ester Little takes asylum in her soul before she erases all memory of the event.

In the second section, the narrative voice changes completely. Glib, clever, cynical, larcenous Hugo Lamb is in his last year at Cambridge. Born of modest means, he makes a living hustling his wealthy classmates at poker and pool. While listening to a choir rehearse at his college chapel, he meets the
most beautiful woman he’s ever seen, none other than Immaculee Constantin. She seems to be interviewing him for a mission, before mysteriously disappearing.

At Christmas break, he’s staying with his aristocratic friends at a chalet in Switzerland when he falls in love for the first time in his life with an English barmaid, 21-year-old Holly Sykes. After a blissful time snowed in by a blizzard, he forsakes her to be initiated into a time-travelling cult known as the Anchorites, based in a mountain chapel in the Alps.

Elizabeth Little and Dr Marinus are also time travellers, but from a rival cult known as the Horologists. They are automatically reincarnated 49 days after death, commonly in a different race and sex. In contrast, the eternal life of the Anchorites is based on three month installments of drinking the soul, the “Black Wine”, of kidnapped victims, often children. The two cults have been at war for 150 years.

Telepathy, precognition, transmigration of souls – now we are in Stephen King territory. This conceit continues over two more entertaining sections, one about Ed Brubeck, Holly’s old classmate, now an Iraq war correspondent and father of her daughter, Aoife; the other about Crispin Hershey, a washed-up novelist, who keeps bumping into Holly at various literary functions around the world. She is famous now for her psychic memoir Radio Voices.

But now we come to the gaping crater in the novel. Dr Marinus, reincarnated as an Afro-Canadian female psychiatrist, brings Holly along to the climatic battle of the war of the cults in Switzerland. Good and evil clash in comic book super hero combat. This is just embarrassingly bad.

The novel only redeems itself in the last section, narrated by 74-year-old Holly, living a hand-to-mouth existence in a cabin on the coast of a dystopian Ireland. The world is falling apart in 2043, starved of fuel, air travel and even government. However, even this section is ruined at the end by a seaborne deus ex machina from Iceland. The Bone Clocks is often a great story, if you can take it seriously.

— James Eckardt

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