The Bone Clocks is similar to Cloud Atlas, the only other David Mitchell book I’ve read (this is the other David Mitchell, the serious novelist, not the comedian whose books I have also read and enjoyed!) in that it’s a huge, sprawling, complicated book with a complex structure, multiple narrators, and things you won’t understand till later in the book. In the case of The Bone Clocks the unifying element that ties the different stories together is the life of Holly Sykes, who we first meet as a 15-year-old runaway in 1980s Britain. Holly is a great, cheeky, first-person narrator, and it’s a bit jarring in the second section of the book to switch to the completely different (and much less engaging) voice of a wealthy, amoral, possibly sociopathic university student several years later. But his story intersects with Holly’s, and so do the stories of all the characters we meet throughout the book’s span of more than sixty years.
Also intersecting with the lives of Holly Sykes, Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, and Crispin Hershey, is a whole other layer — call it magic realism, paranormal, or full-blown fantasy — that weaves through the highly realistic narrative. Holly’s been hearing “voices” since she was a little girl, but doesn’t realize that she is standing at the crossroads of an invisible battle between two groups of beyond-human people — the Atemporals, who are born over and over into different human bodies with the same consciousness, and the Anchorites, who also use human bodies for their immortal lives, but in a different and more predatory way (I think. This part was confusing).
Personally, although I certainly don’t mind a healthy dose of fantasy, I found that the realistic elements of this book worked far better than the fantasy elements. The glimpses of paranormal activity were a fascinating motif that kept weaving in and out and made me curious, but ultimately, I didn’t find that part of the story paid off well enough to be worth the mystery. What I loved were the perspectives and voices of the main characters, and the richly realized detail of each section as it took us through different strata of (mostly British) life in different eras. Whether it was Holly’s punk-rock teenage rebellion in the 80s, Ed’s harrowing experiences as a war correspondent in the early-2000s Middle East, or Crispin’s acerbic observations of life among the literati, the stories (with the possible exception of Hugo’s) were always enjoyable and insightful. As for the final section of the book, set in a dystopian not-too-distant-and-all-too-plausible future, it was heartrending precisely because it was so believable. Holly Sykes is only a few years younger than I am, and it was hard to read that last section and avoid the fear that my old age might be lived out in a world not unlike the one she inhabits, as an eighty-year-old woman struggling to bring up two orphans in a lawless, post-climate-change-disaster corner of Ireland.
Without the fantasy elements that have woven through the story, the book would be robbed of any of the “sweet” elements in what’s ultimately a bittersweet resolution. Even so, the aspects of The Bone Clocks that will linger with me will not be the shadowy battles between immortals but the very mortal lives of the characters Mitchell so expertly depicts.