The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell [a review]


Title: The Bone Clocks
Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton – Sceptre
Date of Publication: 2 September 2014
Number of Pages: 608

Rating:  2.5 stars  or 4 stars – depending on what mood I’m in when you ask me

Disclaimer: Copy provided free by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Summary: One drowsy summer’s day in 1984, teenage runaway Holly Sykes encounters a strange woman who offers a small kindness in exchange for ‘asylum’. Decades will pass before Holly understands exactly what sort of asylum the woman was seeking…

The Bone Clocks follows the twists and turns of Holly’s life from a scarred adolescence in Gravesend to old age on Ireland’s Atlantic coast as Europe’s oil supply dries up – a life not so far out of the ordinary, yet punctuated by flashes of precognition, visits from people who emerge from thin air and brief lapses in the laws of reality. For Holly Sykes – daughter, sister, mother, guardian – is also an unwitting player in a murderous feud played out in the shadows and margins of our world, and may prove to be its decisive weapon.

Review: Boris Kachka, writing for The Vulture, asks the “when did books get so freaking enormous?” This question is one that many in the media, bloggers included, have started asking recently. Most frequently cited examples include Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Eleanor Catton’s Luminaries but overlooked are We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (620 pages) and the subject of this review (608 pages). While both of the two later works are short by comparison, at 200 odd pages fewer, they both represent a significant time investment.

The Goldfinch was an effort to finish – I found Theo self absorbed and obnoxious, however, my mistake was more than likely, reading this after The Little Friend. There are few characters who compare with Harriet. The Luminaries by comparison was fascinating and so well imagined – the story so well plotted and left you wanting more. We Are Not Ourselves did not have any of the style of the Tartt and Catton. It wanted to play with the big boys but didn’t quite make it.

The Bone Clocks, at 20% is maintaining my interest though  it does read like other teenage angst and university boy novels that have been done, both well and terribly over the years. At 20% I cannot point out any element that sets it apart or makes it unique.

William Skidelsky argues “…there are many reasons why a novel like The Bone Clocks shouldn’t work. Yet what’s surprising – and a testament to Mitchell’s singular abilities – is that for the most part it does.” The only problem with this statement is that it doesn’t work. This book is a really good, standard length novel, clogged up and lumbering to a less than satisfactory conclusion. It is refreshing to read Ursula K Le Guin’s Guardian review and discover she has has very eloquently put into words all the misgivings I have been struggling with. For example; five separate narrators, of which, three are tedious and and one, positively loathsome –  the constant flood of words that desperately need an editor with a courage and a red pen – and a good versus evil showdown that takes too long to happen and is vague at best.

James Wood also focuses my thoughts on the problems I encountered with The Bone Clocks. The lack of connection with the characters, the weightlessness of the very well written prose that drags you on but ultimately never grounds you in a single place or connects you with anything. The closest the reader comes to any feeling of being grounded is briefly in Iraq but even then, it remains a brief, tantalising glimpse. While none of these factors leave you at a dead end, there are a number of good places for The Bone Clocks to have finished without leaving the reader disappointed.

I am torn between what level of rating to give The Bone Clocks. Part of me enjoyed the romp and part of wanted to leave it unfinished. In all honesty, this book may hasn’t changed my opinion of or curbed my desire to read long books but if the prose is long and the words irrelevant, it might well be the start of something.

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