The Short Version: do yourself a favour and read this book
This is astonishingly good. The audiobook was twenty-four hours long and I enjoyed every minute of it.
David Mitchell has managed to go toe-to-toe with modern fantasy writers in terms of creating supernatural beings and magical systems and a long struggle between darkness and light. Then he’s raised the game by embedding the story in a vividly evoked past and a credible near-future and telling it all through the eyes of engaging, credible, memorable characters.
David Mitchell let me take up residence in the heads of people who were very different from each other and often only loosely associated with one another and I believed in each of them, even the ones I didn’t like. In one case he let me occupy the head of the same person when they were in their teens and in their sixties and succeeded in showing me that they were and weren’t the same person.
The book goes from the nineteen eighties to the twenty forties. Capturing the decades that I’ve already lived through so accurately meant his descriptions of the parts in the future felt real and prophetic.
I strongly recommend that you make the time to listen to this audiobook. It’s exceptional.
The Longer Version – what reading ‘The Bone Clocks’ was like
This is such a long book and such a good book that I want to share the reactions I had to it as I went along.
In the beginning
I bought ‘The Bone Clocks’ in 2014 when it was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Maybe that was where things went wrong. I’d mentally shelved it as ‘Literature’ with a capital L for LONG (the audiobook is 24hours of listening) and didn’t pick it up again, even when it won the 2015 World Fantasy Award. Now it’s being hailed as an on-topic climate change book Anyway, I decided it had to go on my Read Or Throw list and I finally started it today.
WOW. I’m immediately and totally in Kent in the 1980s, following a fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes, who is leaving home after a row and I’m learning about the ‘weird shit’ in her history when she could hear ‘the radio people’ and I don’t want to put this down.
Holly is engaging and believable and seeing 80s Gravesend through her eyes is like watching a huge UHD screen where no detail is lost.
At the end of Part 2
What stood out about Part 1, the Holly Sykes section of the book was the realism of the account. Holly sounds like a fifteen-year-old girl who has run away from home. All the details and the people are right. Which makes the supernatural stuff, when it finally arrives in a burst of violence, seem even more vivid. Lots of trailing of snippets of information about some kind of supernatural war, with comments from both sides, but not enough to do more than make me curious. The violence was graphic but believable.
Just as I was settling down in Holly’s head, we skip forward from 1985 to 1991 and I find myself sitting in the mind of Hugo, a repugnant young man who is about to graduate from Cambridge. He’s bright, slick, at least amoral and possibly evil and he embodies many of the reasons why I had no desire to go to Cambridge or Oxford. I’m already hoping something bad will happen to him, that I’ll be there to watch and that it takes a while.
Mitchell knows how to press my buttons.
I liked the definition of power offered to Hugo by what he does not yet know is a supernatural entity. It’s a clever definition and one that undermines the smug, short-term, fundamentally middle-class definition of power that Hugo offered (the ability to make people do things they don’t want to do or not do things they do want to do). It pictures power as a virus or a parasite moving from host to host.
Power is lost or won, never created or destroyed. Power is a visitor to, not a possession of, those it empowers. The mad tend to crave it. Many of the sane crave it but the wise tend to worry about its long-term side-effects. Power is crack-cocaine for your ego and battery acid for your soul. Power’s comings and goings from host to host, via war, marriage, ballot box, dictations and accident of birth are the plot of history. The empowered may serve justice, remodel the earth, transform lush nations into smoking battlefields and bring down skyscrapers but power itself is amoral.
I rather like this idea of power as a vampire, using and finally draining its hosts.
At the end of Part 3
With each part of the book, we move from one head to another, not just change the eyes that you’re looking at the story through. Each Part is a novella conveying the personality, history and hopes of the person at its centre. It’s as if the author is moving from body to body and sitting as an unnoticed passenger at the back of each character’s mind, rather like the disembodied supernaturals at the edges of the story.
I’ve just finished the third novella. It’s so vivid and real. A wonderful intercutting of a memory of being in Bagdad the week before as a war correspondent and the flatter reality of being at a family wedding. The pull of the addictive danger of a war zone is set against the love of his child and his wife. This was totally gripping and highly emotional and managed to balance the wedding and the war in terms of trauma.
At the end of the book
I got swept up in the story and didn’t keep detailed notes as I went along but here’s what stood out for me:
The change of tone as we follow the jaded Lit Fic author to bookish events around the world was astonishing. I was amazed to find myself feeling compassion for this dried out, successful but disappointed man. Inevitably, I wondered if he was Mitchell’s portrait in the attic, the man he’s hoping not to be. This was reinforced when the author suggests to his editor that he wants to write a fantasy novel that’s also literary fiction. The editor believes this can’t be done. It sounds a lot like a pitch for ‘The Bone Clocks’.
The battle between the dark and light supernatural forces was brilliantly conceived and executed. In any other book, this would have been the big bang finish. Not in this book though. In this book, we see the reality that the struggle never stops, regardless of the price paid.
The final portion of the book, which takes place in Sheep’s Head in County Cork in 2043, was outstanding and disturbing. We return to Holly Sykes’ head. She’s now sixty-four and caring for her granddaughter and an adopted child. The world that’s being evoked is one coming to terms with the reality of climate change. One where the young are turning their anger on the boomers who made the mess they must now live through, where the Church is again pushing for control of Ireland, where the Chinese are the only functioning super power. Holly calls this unravelling of the world she grew up in ‘the Endarklement’. It’s grim and very plausible. And yet the thing that struck me most was how I could see in this sixty-four year-old woman the fifteen year-old girl she had been and all the changes she’d lived through.
I strongly recommend the audiobook version which benefits from multiple narrators, all of whom do a great job. I see that there’s a new audiobook being released this month which is only ten hours long but which isn’t marked as abridged. I don’t know how they’re managing that. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear an extract from the version I listened to.