Book Review: The Bone Clocks


The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell, is a story about mortality. Using a series of interwoven vignettes set over a sixty year time period it combines a character led drama with century spanning fantasy elements. The author is undoubtedly a talented writer. The prose is neat and perceptive with plenty of humour and insight. However, the plot centers around warring Anchorites and Horologists, beings who can live forever if certain conditions are met, and whose raison d’etre failed to either move or inspire me.

The book opens in 1984 when a love struck fifteen year old, Holly Sykes, gets into an argument with her mother over an older boyfriend and decides to leave home. As may be expected from such an inauspicious beginning, things do not go according to plan. The reader can see the potential importance of the various people and events Holly encounters in her few days away, but at this stage none are explained. Holly’s character development is nicely done, she is a believable young teenage rebel, but the fantastical action in this section comes across as extraneous.

The next vignette is set seven years later and introduces the reader to four students at Cambridge University. Their interactions are interesting and well developed, their aspirations recognisable to anyone who has experience of Oxbridge students. The confidence, self-entitlement and resentments combine to provide compelling storylines which I would have been happy to follow further. I found myself enjoying all but the recurring fantasy elements which, once again, did not draw me in.

Part three is set thirteen years later at a wedding in Brighton. Holly now has a daughter and a war correspondent partner. The subplots impressed while the slow burning main plot development did not. I enjoyed the quality of the writing but by this stage was beginning to wonder about the point of this book.

Having said that, the next section was my favourite. It opens in 2015 at the  Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival and proceeds to bite big, bitter chunks out of authors, critics, editors, publishers and readers. This was not what why I liked it, indeed I felt rather put out that the fictional author and protagonist, Crispin Hershey, should look on those who have supported his work and provided his income with such disdain. It is perhaps unfortunate that he came across as so believable; it was almost enough to put me off literary events. Unlike the previous sections this one covers a longer time frame, five years,, which allowed for a good progression of the story. A number of previous characters are reintroduced. In these chapters the main, fantasy plot seems to fit more naturally into the story being told.

The penultimate section starts in 2025 and is the only one which revolves around the Anchorites and Horologists rather than merely mentioning them in passing. The threads from preceding stories are drawn together and the reason for certain recurring characters explained. There is a battle and an outcome, neither of which excited me. I found myself counting the pages to the end.

The final section is set in a dystopian future and reminded me of Ben Elton’s early works when he attempted to show his readers what a mess man is making of the world. Set in a rural Ireland, now being run by wealthy Chinese, it covers a pivotal three days during which the fragile infrastructure cracks and violent lawlessness becomes a reality. It was interesting to ponder the possibilities, particularly the way the author saw the role of women regressing in a time of anarchy, but at times it came across as rather too preachy for my liking. The denouement was reasonable even if it felt a tad contrived.

My main problem with this book was that the fantasy elements bored me. I thoroughly enjoyed the characters and each of their stories, but I wanted to get back to these each time the overall plot became the focus. I found the the women more likable than the men who seemed overly influenced by sex. I am unable to comment on the fairness of such a representation.

Having read this book I will be removing Cloud Atlas from my wish list. However well he may write and be regarded by others, it would seem that David Mitchell’s work may not be for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sceptre.