There is no way around the fact that with every new novel David Mitchell establishes himself more and more as one of the rare masters of contemporary British literature. Precise, yet lyrical and evocative prose, coupled with fascinating characterisations and always surprising, pushing-the-boundaries kinds of plots, Mitchell is not unlike one of the characters of his latest novel The Bone Clocks, author Crispin Hershey (aka “the wild child of British letters”), who works very hard not to be pinned down.
Like Mitchell’s earlier novels Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, The Bone Clocks is an epic narrative that takes a deliberate path through a labyrinth of times, places and characters – not to arrive at a particular place (as this novel is not about arriving, as much as it is about the journey) but to provide a complex, conceptual re-imagining of the meaning of time and human mortality, where “the contract of life” is turned upside down and shaken to its core.
The Bone Clocks begins harmlessly enough in small town England, with the dilemma of teenager-in-love Holly Sykes, who runs away from home after an argument with her mother. When Holly’s seemingly straight-forward act of teenage rebellion goes wrong she finds herself on a very different journey to what she had expected, filled with characters and events that she does not understand, and that provide the reader with the first clue to the fact that this is never going to be just a straightforward narrative of psychological insights and human dilemmas. Mitchell creates Holly’s world in a few proficient strokes of the pen (in under 90 pages), and then abruptly leaves it to move on to the next character in the novel, a young, self-loving, and ruthless charmer by the name of Hugo Lamb. And then the next character…and then the next. And just when the potential for frustration at leaving behind yet another character is at its highest, the story pivots to introduce a completely new concept which – mercifully – brings together all those characters that the reader has reluctantly left behind along the way. And this is where the talent of Mitchell really comes to the fore, through his ability to be as much at home in the depiction of a love-sick, hormone fuelled teenager, as an aging, vitriolic author, or a several century old reincarnating horologist.
The Bone Clocks is thought provoking, engaging, and resonates to the point where even the “impossible” (including a very anxiety-inducing vision of our planet’s future post-technological meltdown) seems entirely possible. A new take on the question of good versus evil, and knowledge versus ignorance is a theme that in a broader sense has always interested Mitchell, who manages to bring together old characters and references from his previous books in The Bone Clocks, as part of a project that he has called the “übernovel” – which is his ongoing endeavour to write a set of interconnecting novels.
But while this may all sound confusing and ad hoc, with Mitchell at the helm it is of course anything but ad hoc – finely crafted, at times silly and self-indulgent, the plot is always compelling. Even when the author takes you out on a complete limb – and you know that’s where you are – you will want to keep following him, just for the joy of it.