Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

A white Thanksgiving in Maine! Luckily we got our power back in time to cook the turkey.
David Mitchell is one of my favorite authors; his genre bending novels defy classification. I waited eagerly for The Bone Clocks to be released in September of 2014 and was not disappointed. Fans will enjoy how several characters from Mitchell's previous books reappear in this one, although prior knowledge of his work isn't necessary to understand the story. The Bone Clocks follows a British teenager in the 1980s as she ages into a dystopian future, ravaged by climate change. A paranormal central plotline unites the chapters of Holly's life in this ambitious novel.

The Bone Clocks has something for everyone. Young adults will enjoy Holly's youthful rebellion, the hedonistic Cambridge students and the paranormal duels. Mitchell creates villains you love to hate. Spiritualists would find the parts about reincarnation fascinating. Policy pundits will appreciate the section about a war correspondent in Iraq. Literati will laugh over the publishing world satire. Environmentalists will embrace the scary climate change scenario. Somehow Mitchell weaves all these disparate plot strands together into a cohesive narrative.

Mitchell is a master of craft, but I think he's better at realism than at paranormal fantasy. I loved how reincarnation gave those characters a broader historical perspective, but the death defying Anchorites were too Harry Potter/Twilight. The central paranormal plot felt a bit contrived and overly complicated as if to compensate for being a childish element in an adult book. I'm not sure the narrative needed it since Holly's lifespan against the backdrop of climate change already grounded the story. Then again, I usually prefer realistic fiction to fantasy. Even so, the paranormal elements didn't put me off this book.

It was fascinating to watch a character age and mature through the period of my lifetime and into a plausibly bleak future. In an Atlantic Monthly interview, Mitchell explains that what people take for granted grounds a narrative in time: past, present or future. References to pop culture, technology and politics brings history to life and make an imagined future sound plausible. Holly's lifespan brackets the narrative. She is central to the narrative but is not always the protagonist in the story-like sections, each one focusing on a different character who matters to Holly.

Mitchell's writing is fresh, witty and occasionally sardonic:
Delightfully whimsical descriptive prose:
"Inside, Saint Mary Hoo's Church smells of charity shops, and the stained-glass gloom's all fruit-salady." 
Dialogue which reveals character:
"Don't your friends get annoyed when you do that?"
"Do what?"
"Sifting what they say for clues instead of listening?"
On the craft of writing:
"'A writer flirts with schizophrenia, nurtures synesthesia, and embraces obsessive-compulsive disorder. Your art feeds on you, your soul, and, yes, to a degree your sanity. Writing novels worth reading will bugger up your mind, jeopardize your relationships, and distend your life. You have been warned.'
My ten postgrads look sober. So they should.
'Art feasts upon its maker,' I tell them."
I'd recommend The Bone Clocks to almost anyone, although it's not my absolute favorite of Mitchell's books. I suspect that I will always love Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas the most. Perfection is pretty hard to beat. Nonetheless, The Bone Clocks is worth reading for its epic scope, well developed characters and page-turner plot. Mitchell is a writer's writer. The hardcover was a heavy 624 pages, but I literally couldn't put it down. I bought a larger handbag so that I could bring the book everywhere with me. My husband is reading it now and I'll be giving a copy to my son. The Bone Clocks will be on my best books of 2014 list (coming soon.)

The New York Times had a fascinating article on David Mitchell's process, which explains why academic scholars are studying his work. As I revise my WIP, I found Mitchell's advice inspiring: “Wrong versions become the scaffolding that you use to build the novel.”

Backcountry on Black Friday with Scout. Photo by my daughter.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought The Bone Clocks without compensation at Gulf of Maine Books. This beautifully bound hardcover would make an excellent holiday gift for readers and/or weight lifters. Let us say cheers and thank you to Barrie Summy for hosting the Book Review Club for another wonderful year!

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pattinase (abbott) said...

I have tried his first two books but his "voice" didn't speak to me. I know this is my impatience and will try again.

troutbirder said...

Hmmm. Most interesting review. A "favorite author" gets my attention though I must admit I was the only person on the planet who had trouble reading THE TIME TRAVELOR and even more so with the movie....

Ellen Booraem said...

I gave this to The Man for his birthday a week ago! Which means I'll get to read it, too. Thanks for the sneak preview, Sarah. Great review, as always.

A Cuban In London said...

He is certainly in my to-read list. I have not bought any of his books yet but that situation will change soon. Like you mentioned, it's his genre-bending approach that really appeals to me. Thanks for the review.

Greetings from London.

Linda McLaughlin said...

I really like his comments about the craft of writing. Reincarnation was a theme in Cloud Atlas, too, I believe. I always find that fascinating. Thanks for the great review.

Barrie said...

As you know, I began reading The Bone Clocks last month. I haven't finished. Mostly, I think, because it's a complicated (not to mention long) book, and I've had too many interruptions. Also, I'm having trouble with the paranormal aspects. I think you hit the nail on the head in this review when you said it felt contrived. That said, I'll definitely finish the book; the characters are phenomenal! Thanks for reviewing. And cheers back to you!

Amanda Summer said...

Fascinating. I can't help but think of comparing Mitchell to Joyce. Something in the Irish soil or water that fermented this ability in both to construct these complex - scaffolded is a good word - multiverse tomes.

As for myself, could not get through Ulysses and worry that I would be unable to read this all the way through as well - my sensibilities definitely go to lighter fare!

Elizabeth Musgrave said...

I am torn between wanting to read it and feeling that I don't have the energy for such a big book, in so many ways. Maybe I need to wait until I am in an easier phase of my life! Great review though and I suspect my response to the paranormal, when I eventually get there, will be much the same as yours.

Jenn Jilks said...

You have such a wit about you! What a wonderful post. This sounds like a great book to me. I'll put it on my birthday list!

I appreciated what you wrote about the difference between YA and NA. I'm not sure the author or publicist knows the difference. They told me I had a draft copy and they took out the semisalacious sex scenes. It's such a business!
Thanks for visiting!

cynthia said...

Nice review. Love this:“Wrong versions become the scaffolding that you use to build the novel.”

Donna said...

I'm adding this to my Must Read list. Thanks for the great review.

Rose said...

Excellent review, Sarah! The paranormal aspect doesn't appeal to me, but the quotes you included certainly sound intriguing. Buying a bigger handbag to carry a book--ha, that's the sign of a true book-lover:)

Gorgeous photos! I'm sure Scout enjoys the snow; I know our Sophie does.

Unknown said...

I loved all the samples you gave from the book, but I'm not sure I could get through a 624 page novel with this far-reaching topic. (I'm also not sure I could lug it around with me!) But you've definitely made me curious about the author--I plan to do a little further research!

Lovely review!