I have a theory. There’s a certain point in a successful author’s writing career when they achieve a degree of commercial and critical success. At that point, they become less willing to take advice from their editors (after all, they are the famous and wildly successful writer), their books balloon in size, and they lose some of the edge that has led to their success. I offer as evidence the following:
- J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – three times the size of the previous book, and the entire Quidditch World Cup section adds nothing to the plot of the novel.
- Cryptonomicon. The moment Neal Stephenson cast off the shackles of his tightly plotted earlier novels in favour of brieze block sized sprawling epics.
The Bone Clocks is the novel that marks that point for David Mitchell. It’s a beautifully written fantastical story about one woman, Holly Sykes, who at various points of her life finds herself sucked into a generations-long war between immortals. On one side of that war are the Anchorites, who are either reborn in fresh bodies, or transfer from one body to another. On the other side are the followers of the Blind Cathar, who sacrifice people to ensure their own eternal youth.
The novel is a braided narrative, visiting Holly at different points in her life. The novel starts as Holly runs away from home as a teenager, after discovering her boyfriend is cheating on her. It finishes at the very end of Holly’s life, in a bleak near-future blighted by climate change and fossil fuel scarcity. Far and away the strongest part of the novel is Holly’s development as a person. We see her grow and change, becoming toughened and hardened by the experiences of her life, particularly the loss of her brother while a child.
Only two of those sections of Holly’s story are seen through her eyes: the very beginning and the very end of the book. The others give us external perspectives of Holly’s life, from friends, colleagues and lovers. Some of these are more successful than others. Ed Brubeck gives us an insight into the dilemma of a war reporter, torn between loyalty to a family that needs him and a compulsion to report on the conflicts of the world, even if that puts his own life and safety at risk. By contrast, Crispin Hershey is a privileged, arrogant and self-indulgent writer who seems to act as little more than a vehicle for Mitchell to achieve the feat of writing about a writer who is writing a novel about a writer (if you can follow that string). That section adds little to our understanding of Holly and her life.
Ultimately, the message of the novel is that the centuries-long war between the ancients has little or no impact or relevance to the lives of ordinary people. Neither side uses their magic for the good of the ordinary people. People like Holly and her family are largely bystanders and casualties, whose lives carry on much as before.
I can’t help but feel that a good edit would turn this from a well-written, but somewhat flabby book, into something much more tightly written and with cleaner transitions between each section. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed reading it – The Bone Clocks is a beautifully written book – but I can’t help but be left with the feeling that it could have been better. I have high expectations of David Mitchell and this novel doesn’t quite live up to them.
Goodreads rating: 4*