The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks revolves around the struggle between two groups of competing immortals, the Horologists and the Anchorites, each with their own magical powers. Yet most of the book revolves around live and loves of a series of “normal” people. The Bone Clocks iterates through a series of episodes widely separated by time and place.

As the book opens, teenage Holly Sykes is experiencing a typical teenage angst caused by her mother’s disapproval of her twenty-something older boyfriend. She runs away from home to be with him. When the not-unexpected occurs, she’s set adrift, running away to a farm on the Isle of Sheppey north of London. Adventures, magical and otherwise, follow.

Hugo Lamb is a magnetic and attractive college student in Cambridge, engaged in riotous living and a few quasi-ethical shenanigans. The pretentiousness (and fun!) of college is well captured by Mitchell. Witness the synopsis of Hugo’s friend Richard’s book:

My hero is a Cambridge student called Richard Cheeseman, working on a novel about a Cambridge student called Richard Cheeseman, working on a novel about a Cambridge student called Richard Cheeseman. No one’s ever tried anything like it.

Mitchell’s descriptive prose talent is considerable. Here’s the background chatter at the Buried Bishop bar where Hugo and his pals are drinking:

The Buried Bishop’s a gridlocked scrum, an all-you-can-eat of youth: “Stephen Hawking and the Dalai Lama, right; they posit a unified truth”; short denim skirts, Gap and Next shirts, Kurt Cobain cardigans, black Levi’s; “Did you see that oversexed pig by the loo, undressing me with his eyes?”; that song by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl booms in my diaphragm and knees; “Like, my only charity shop bargains were headlice, scabies, and fleas”; a fug of hairspray, sweat and Lynx, Chanel No. 5, and smoke; well-tended teeth with zero fillings, revealed by the so-so joke – “Have you heard the news about Schrodinger’s Cat? It died today; wait—it didn’t, did, didn’t, did …”; high-volume discourse on who’s the best Bond; on Gilmour and Waters and Syd; on hyperreality; dollar-pound parity; Sartre, Bart Simpson, Barthes’s myths; “Make mine a double”; George Michael’s stubble; ………..

Or, describing a battle between the Horologists and Anchorites:

Think of those tennis-ball firing machines, but loaded with hand grenades,” offers Oshima, “trapped in a shipping container, on a ship caught in a force-ten gale.

Eventually, Holly will run into Hugo in Switzerland, and the sparks fly….as they become closer and closer, Hugo is recruited into a mysterious enterprise by beautiful woman. It becomes increasingly clear Hugo is utterly amoral….but I don’t want to spoil anything…

When the dust settles, we encounter Crispin Hersey, a semi-washed up celebrity writer. Crispin will become a lifelong friend to Holly, and Mitchell’s skewering of the pretentious literary scene as they get to know each other is hilarious. Mitchell renders Crispin (and Holly and Hugo and the other characters) extraordinarily well – they’re all real, flawed, admirable, 3d characters.

Music is a running thread throughout The Bone Clocks, from Britten to club music to Shostakovich. (For fun, I made a Spotify playlist of the music mentioned, here). One song mentioned twice, I could not find anything out about. If you know anything about Exocets for Breakfast by Damon MacNish, let me know – I expect it’s made up.

The skirmishes between the immortals culminate in a final apocalyptic battle….when the dust clears we are into the last segment. It’s not a spoiler to say that Holly Sykes is old and still alive and living in ??? Ireland…???

This is where I found the book really went off the rails for me. After the last battle, the book felt nearly done. But then, the last chapter is 80 pages of non-sequitur. Holly is old and taking care of some young children, whom I’ll not identify for spoiler reasons. But if Flashback by Dan Simmons is a fever-dream of a potential bad future created by Obama, as imagined by the current right wing in the US, the last chapter of The Bone Clocks is a cornucopia of conventional modern liberalism’s bogeymen. There’s little power, little internet, nuclear accidents, religious narrow-mindedness, ice caps melting, and more:

It’s grief for ….the ice caps we melted, the coasts we flooded, the lakes we choked,..the seas we killed, the species we drove to extinction, …the oil we squandered….all so we didn’t have to change our cozy lifestyles..

or this, from Holly and Mo’s encounter with a looter thug:

“So you’re bringing back the law of the jungle?”, asks Mo.
“You were bringing it back, every time you filled your tank”.

On and on for 80 pages – I felt like I was being hectored by The Huffington Post and MSNBC…kinda tiresome, and really not much connected to anything else in the book, more of a closing homily.

I really enjoyed The Bone Clocks. The characters were great fun and I cared about them, and they went so many interesting places. The book could have been 2/3 the length, and lost the last episode, and I would have been much the happier for it. But still, a great read.

(I received a copy of The Bone Clocks through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program)

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