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The Bone Clocks

January 6, 2015

Perhaps David Mitchell’s novel The Bone Clocks doesn’t have a table of contents because readers are being invited to plunge into this world without a guide, submerging themselves until they’re used to the water and then looking around to see what the shore they’ve left looks like from this new perspective. Even the kenning of the title—that people are “bone clocks” for immortal beings who move among us—is an attempt to broaden our usual perspective. The extraordinary life of the character Holly Sykes ties the narrative together, and it’s hard even for a person as special and long-lived as she is to see how our actions have consequences for not only our own children but our grandchildren and on down the line—something for which we need a God’s-eye view, or at least the view of an immortal, like Marinus, one of the narrators of this novel.

It begins easily, with a teenaged Holly Sykes running away from her parents and encountering an adventure she doesn’t really understand amid a few encounters with strangers and older boys that make her (and the reader) momentarily afraid for her: “If I tell him to feck right off, he’ll probably turn all the pickers against me. If I go nuclear and call for help it’ll be his version against the Hysterical New Girl’s, and how old is she again, and do her parents really know she’s here anyway?”

The second chapter introduces a new narrator, Hugo Lamb, who meets one of the strangers Holly has previously met and then later meets Holly herself, to the reader’s alarm, since we know some disturbing things about Hugo that Holly doesn’t. Still, since he’s telling us his side of the story, we don’t necessarily want to see him get hurt, and we’re on his side when he says that he doesn’t believe his father will call one morning just because he dreamed about it: “obviously it’s the dregs of a dream—otherwise I’d have powers of precognition, which I don’t. Obviously.” We are as skeptical as Hugo himself when he meets with a man who says he represents “the Anchorites of the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Monastery of Sidelhorn Pass.” What we don’t have is Hugo’s powerful sense of privilege (Holly calls him “posh boy”), so when he finds out that “Portals appear in thin air. People have pause buttons. Telepathy is as real as telephones” we don’t immediately conclude, as he does, that “the impossible is negotiable.”

The third narrator is Ed, the father of Holly’s child and a foreign correspondent who can’t give up the adrenaline rush of working in a war zone. After one close call outside of Abu Ghraib he thinks “when I get back home, I’ll never leave again” followed immediately by “when I get back home, I’ll never feel this alive” which tips you off that he will never get home, and that there are many who never do.

The fourth narrator is a full-of-himself writer named Crispin Hershey, the character in this book who has the longest way to go before I can sympathize at all with his story, even though he’s telling his side of the story. He begins with how insulted he feels by another writer’s bad review of his latest novel and ends up framing the writer for drug possession in revenge and then working for years to get him out of a hellhole Latin American prison. He meets Holly and her daughter Aoife in circumstances where I expected him to ridicule them, but instead he befriends them both. Every time I expected him to be a complete jerk, he ends up being somewhat less of a jerk than I expected either because I see things from his point of view or because he finally gets what he richly deserves from someone he ignored.

It is the fifth narrator, Marinus, who finally makes sense of all the separate strands readers have been following in the previous chapters. He is a Horologist, one who is reborn over and over into different bodies, and he introduces us to others, Unalaq, Oshima, Arkady, Roho, L’Ohkna, Xi Lo, and Esther. Xi Lo is twenty-five centuries old and Esther’s “soul predated Rome, Troy, Egypt, Peking, Nineveh, and Ur.” Marinus finally introduces Holly Sykes to the Horologists and lets her into their secrets so she can help fight their enemies, the Anchorites, who keep themselves immortal by draining the souls of others. Marinus tells her that these “carnivores are addicts and their drug is artificial longevity.” The atemporals have a big battle from which the Horologists let Holly escape.

After such a strange, science-fiction-feeling section, the final chapter is again narrated by Holly, near the end of her long life. She tells about endings—her own and that of her civilization–from the home she has made in a remote part of Ireland after the “endarkenment,” the beginning of which killed her daughter, Aoife. With no more cars, planes, or internet, Holly can only
“wonder what life in Cartagena, in Perth, in Shanghai is like now. Ten years ago I could have streetviewed the cities, but the Net’s so torn and ragged now that even when we have reception is runs at prebroadband speed….I remember the pictures of seawater flooding Freemantle during the deluge of ’33. Or was it the deluge of ’37? Or am I confusing it with pictures of the sea sluicing into the New York subway, when five thousand people drowned underground? Or was that Athens? Or Mumbai? Footage of catastrophes flowed so thick and fast through the thirties that it was hard to keep track of which coastal region had been devastated this week, or which city had been decimated by Ebola or Ratflu.”

After the death of Aoife in the disasters, Holly is raising her granddaughter Lorelai and an orphaned boy named Rafiq in a small community that is increasingly besieged by end-of-the-world religious fanatics and bands of roving mercenary soldiers. At the very end, Marinus appears to take the children to Iceland, where he is preserving civilization with a handful of the young and able, which means he leaves Holly behind and we see what is left of the world from her mortal perspective, the one we started with.

The ending belies the title. Although the Horologists and Anchorites may think of us as “bone clocks,” their battle is outside of human experience, and this novel focuses on the humans, with only brief glimpses of anything bigger and more mysterious. I think the novel is showing us that many people are even more inexplicable than the fantastic setting of the “dusk chapel,” or the motivations of any “atemporals” who may move among us, and that our bravery in getting up every morning and fighting our way through whatever confronts us that day is worth notice, from whatever odd angle might serve to put our individual lifetimes into fuller perspective.

Think about it. What is the bravest thing you’ve done today? From what perspective can you see it as brave? Maybe from the point of view of someone who loves you from afar or someone who has experienced the world exactly as you have in every detail? Possibly only from the detached point of view of an alien being who admires your determination in continuing to do the same inexplicable thing over and over?

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. Irene McKenna permalink
    January 7, 2015 10:56 am

    This sounds so intriguing! I am off to add it to my to-read list.

    • January 8, 2015 11:29 am

      I hope you like it, and that you’ll come back here and comment again, or leave me a link to your own review so I can hear what you think.

  2. January 7, 2015 12:18 pm

    Oh this sounds so fun.

    • January 8, 2015 11:27 am

      It is fun, as long as you let yourself drift through the first few chapters, trusting that it will all eventually make sense.

  3. January 7, 2015 2:11 pm

    The bravest thing I’ve done today is wait for my late bus in that dark morning in a -30F windchill. It’s afternoon and I still haven’t quite thawed out. Seriously though, the books sounds typical David Mitchell and very good. I’m waiting for the long line at the library to die down before I try getting my hands on it.

    • January 8, 2015 11:26 am

      Stefanie, you’re a braver woman than I am! I guess sometimes we have to rise to an occasion. That one sounds tough.

  4. freshhell permalink
    January 7, 2015 2:45 pm

    Every time I sit at my computer and add more to my new story, I feel a little brave. But mainly I do it so I don’t feel ashamed of myself for not doing it.

    • January 8, 2015 11:25 am

      It’s a time-honored method of being brave, to force yourself to do something that you’d be ashamed of not doing. Good for you!

  5. January 7, 2015 3:42 pm

    I have done absolutely nothing brave today – except maybe not ask my son the questions I was longing to ask him when we had a brief skype chat earlier. You might understand that, Jeanne, thousands wouldn’t! But I am looking forward to this book, which I gave Mr Litlove for Christmas. I haven’t read David Mitchell before, but it’s more than time that I did. It sounds most intriguing from your excellent synopsis.

    • January 8, 2015 11:19 am

      I absolutely get the bravery in not asking a grown son the questions you long to ask him!

  6. January 7, 2015 6:28 pm

    I haven’t done a thing brave today. I’m sick today though, which surely makes me exempt, right? From having to do brave things?

    Have you read other things by David Mitchell, or was this your first by him? I started Black Swan Green ages ago but got bored with it. It sounds like it is not his strangest book.

  7. January 7, 2015 9:08 pm

    I adore David Mitchell. This is going on my list.

    • January 8, 2015 11:24 am

      Some Mitchell lovers have commented on the characters who float through this one from the corners of his other novels. Marinus, for instance.

  8. January 9, 2015 9:26 pm

    Outside the actual battle scene in the cave, I really loved this book. I’m so glad to find out you did, too, Jeanne!

    • January 10, 2015 9:43 am

      The battle stuff was so weird. I think I was inoculated against strange science-fiction-type battles cropping up in literary fiction by reading Nick Harkaway.

  9. Jenny permalink
    January 9, 2015 9:29 pm

    I’ve read Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green, and have thought them clever but not wonderful. This one just sounds confusing. The bit where you say “It is the fifth narrator, Marinus, who finally makes sense…” is followed by a paragraph that, to me, doesn’t make a lot of sense. I assume it does when you’re reading the book!

    I was brave enough to interview candidates for a position in my department today, but the candidates were a lot braver.

    • January 10, 2015 9:51 am

      The Marinus section makes sense of all the seemingly-random things that have happened to the four previous narrators, in a kind of “there is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will” way.
      There is a bravery on either side of an interview. I’m glad you at least acknowledge that the candidates were braver. I feel like the people I work with too often get caught up in what they want and don’t think about how hard it is to even get to an interview.

  10. January 12, 2015 10:42 am

    I like the idea of examining bravery and what it is we do that we consider brave compared to what may actually be considered as such. I haven’t heard about this book, but it seems intriguing if there are too many narrators for me.

    • January 12, 2015 11:05 am

      So many different points of view–there are only a few people in the world who know why merely walking to my office can be an act of bravery for me (and I don’t just mean on a day like today, when walking on ice requires a certain measure of bravery for the weak of knee).

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