Saturday, December 31, 2016

Book Review - The Bone Clocks

David Mitchell is another one of those authors for whom I’d seen a lot of praise but I’d never actually read any of his work. I decided to dive in with The Bone Clocks. I didn’t realize until I reached the very end of my copy that it included a section with questions and discussion points for “book clubs” reading the book. I don’t know that I would have read the book any differently with those questions in mind but I found them interesting…particularly one of the questions that talks about the scope and nature of Mitchell’s writing and the suggestion that “Bone Clocks” is Mitchell at his “most-Mitchell”. In other words, the question indicates that some people suggest that the scope and ambition of this book is the apex of his form. Since this is the only Mitchell book I’ve read, I can’t speak to the comparison but I can say that this book is definitely very ambitious in what it tries to achieve.

The quick synopsis of this book suggests a story of a teenage girl who has a fight with her family, runs away and inadvertently stumbles into an epic battle between good and evil. The synopsis also suggests that the story unfolds over many decades and involves a number of other characters such as a Cambridge scholar and a bestselling author. What the synopsis doesn’t explain is that the structure of the book is atypical and will leave the average reader feeling a bit lost at sea without a compass or maybe even without a boat.

The book is split into 6 main parts, each of which could have been an individual novella. We begin in the first section focused on a teenage girl named Holly Sykes. I really enjoyed Mitchell’s use of language and the vivacity of the scenes. I didn’t grow up in 1980s Britain but I really felt like the scenes were true to the situations. The narrative style is angsty and full of teenage passion and emotion. We learn a lot about Holly, her family, her situation as well as a little about her past through flashbacks about crazy things that happen. The back of the book synopsis gave some hint that these flashbacks about “The Radio People” were important but otherwise they would have just been interesting anecdotes revealing some strange pieces of Holly’s life. Not until a few hundred pages later do we realize just how important these flashbacks truly are.

Once Holly decides to run away from home the novel gives a few glimpses into the ambitious and bizarre territory the plot will eventually try to land. Along the road, Holly is thirsty and meets a strange old woman willing to share some tea with Holly in exchange for asylum someday if she should happen to require it. This innocuous request seems harmless and perhaps a little senile but is another moment that has immense importance later. A little farther down the road Holly has a terrible encounter that can only be explained as supernatural or paranormal. She manages to walk away safely with her memory of the incident erased and not mentioned again for hundreds of pages. Holly’s section ends with a huge revelation that seems to have little or no importance on the story but once again we’ll realize later that’s not the case.

The next section takes place a decade or so later and focuses on the student at Cambridge. We quickly learn about his ambitions and some of his quirks which are borderline (or definitely) illegal. His part in the story seems completely unrelated to Holly’s unless the reader was paying extreme attention during Holly’s story. The clues that Mitchell drops are so quick and subtle that it’s very easy to gloss over them. Finally when it seems that this story is properly going to intersect with Holly’s it takes an entirely different direction.

Rather than go through each of the six sections let me just say that they are each very detailed and rather interesting but in terms of the overall plotline the threads are hidden and somewhat confusing. As a new reader unsure exactly what I should expect I found the writing very engaging and vivid but I was confused as to the overall storyline. I was unclear as to who exactly I needed to be paying attention to and why. I was enjoying the writing and the creation of characters and worlds for the art of it but I was confused as to the trajectory of the story
By this point I’m at around the halfway mark in the book. I had pieced together enough clues to have a general sense of the “good and evil” we were concerned with but I still wasn’t exactly sure how (or if) the pieces were going to fit together and provide a cohesive climax and conclusion.

Due to the amount of pages remaining, I debated putting the book down unfinished. But I’m generally a “completionist” and I did feel invested in the characters and the world and I had a real curiosity to know how/if Mitchell would draw all of the threads together.
The next few chapters continued introducing characters, themes and situations that grew more and more complex. Eventually we flashed back hundreds of years to get a back story of a particular set of characters and the centuries-long struggle between the good and evil forces in the book. As before, I found the writing very interesting and engaging. Each segment was stuffed full of interesting little details that added to the feeling of realism and veracity to the given character or situation.

At long last I arrived at a point where the main characters take a few chapters to sum up the overarching problem to a character that didn’t yet have the full picture. These chapters contain a lot of exposition that helps draw all of the individual threads together and make sense of the overarching plot. As I read through this I thumbed back to some earlier sections of the book and reread those with the new information in mind.

From there we rush to the climax and the final ultimate confrontation between the two main forces of the book. The battle is fought with paranormal means and yet still felt visceral and believable. As our characters try to survive and escape the aftermath, Mitchell once again pulls on information from earlier scenes in the book (this time I made the connection before he had to explain it). Interestingly, once the climax concluded I expected a quick dénouement with a group hug. After all, we’d just had a ton of exposition and a climax filled with ultimatums. How much more could happen? Apparently, a lot. Rather than just set us down nice and easy, Mitchell does additional world building and jumps us forward another many years before winding things down. While the main plotline of the novel is complete he lets us know that the world is still progressing and our characters are still facing struggles. We get numerous chapters about the hardships and struggles before we finally reach the end.

I find myself having a difficult time adequately discussing this book. There is just so much going on that it’s not easy to summarize or explain without delving into spoilers or turning into a rambling mess (which I may have done anyway). The writing truly is good and I definitely enjoy the art of the writing. The storytelling is hugely ambitious and will surely be a stumbling block for somebody looking for a quick good-versus-evil action story.

That’s not to say that the concepts are difficult. On the contrary, I felt like Mitchell did a great job with his world building in constructing ideas and situations that were easy to understand and believable in the context of the novel. Rather, I felt like it was his form and ambition that would cause readers to find the book a little obtuse. The scope and magnitude of what he’s trying to accomplish is exacerbated by the way he drip feeds clues and information slowly and subtly. I found this to be very intriguing but I do admit that I considered giving up at some points.

I read somewhere that Mitchell considers his novels to be “uber chapters” in a much larger literary work. I don’t know if he really said that or if it’s just a fan theory. Having not read his other books I don’t know how well they tie together but even within this single novel I can see that he does like to string together pieces to create a larger whole.

Personally I really enjoyed the base level character and world creation. I found his settings, situations, characters and language to be vivid and enjoyable. The distinct scenes were interesting and compelling even if I didn’t immediately see how they fit into the larger whole. Once the larger plot began to materialize I found the themes and ideas rather compelling and thought provoking. The strange mythology/science/religion that he presents is interesting and opens up some interesting ideas of our concepts of mortality and what we should do with the time we have here on Earth.

As a whole, I really did enjoy this book and it did give me a desire to seek out and read some of his other work. Anticipating the scope of his other work, I’m not sure when I’ll pick up another book by him but I’d gladly read another. As far as recommendations, I must give the parental warning that there is some adult language and themes as well as minimal violence…all in all a PG-13 rating (possibly pushed higher due to language though I can’t recall now how prevalent it was). The other stumbling block to recommendation would be the willingness and desire of a reader to diligently push through this large novel filled with dozens of interesting smaller vignettes that slowly build a larger mural of the full story. There are a few people I can definitely recommend this to and others who I know would lose interest or get frustrated too quickly. Personally I enjoyed it.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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