Friday, 7 November 2014

‘This village in Worcestershire called Black Swan Green…’

In a shocking turn of events, David Mitchell has totally ignored my request that he should write more historical novels. To rub it in even further, this novel, while beginning in 1985, primarily takes place in the future. Once I’d got over my disappointment, however, I was pleased to realise that The Bone Clocks is probably his best novel yet. Which is not to say that it doesn’t still share in his usual strengths and weaknesses.

Holly Sikes is fifteen years old and running away from home after she discovers the love of her life sleeping with her best friend. However, this prosaic start to the story becomes somewhat stranger when she encounters an old woman called Esther, who asks her for ‘asylum’. Shortly afterwards, Holly is entangled in an otherworldly scene where she’s lucky to escape with her life, and has her memories wiped. Odd vocabulary – horologists, Black Wine, Cathars, the Shaded Way – is dropped, but the reader is clearly unable to understand it yet. Because this is a David Mitchell novel, we jump forward ten years to meet obnoxious Cambridge undergraduate and fraudster Hugo Lamb, who sleeps with Holly on a ski trip before becoming involved in a supernatural encounter of his own. A series of narrators, all linked to Holly – a foreign correspondent, a once-superstar novelist, and one of the mysterious Horologists – take us all the way to 2046, where Holly, now an old woman, is struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic Ireland.

The Bone Clocks is an incredibly fun and gripping novel. I think it’s the first of Mitchell’s novels to hold my attention consistently – which is a major feat given how frequently he swaps viewpoints, styles and stories in all of his fiction. However, it’s also exceedingly odd, even for Mitchell. There’s a continuing conflict between the intense social observation that he does so well via a number of his narrators, and the fantastic elements that seem to be grafted on to their lives. The clash is most obvious in the sections narrated by Ed – the foreign correspondent – and Crispin – the novelist. These characters work so well because they feel so real; Ed gives a harrowing account of his experiences as a reporter, but explains why he is addicted to the job, even though he knows he is neglecting his wife and child. On the other end of the spectrum, Crispin is a hilariously self-obsessed novelist who goes to inordinate lengths to punish a reviewer who slated his ‘comeback’ book; he verges on caricature, but becomes less stereotyped through his friendship with Holly. Mitchell’s talents are on full display in these sections, but they don’t work well with the rest of the novel. On the other hand, Hugo’s narrative and the two Holly sections feel sufficiently removed from reality that they gel better with the Horologist sub-plot. As for the remaining section of the novel, where we finally learn what Black Wine and Cathars are… I’m not sure I know what to make of it. It’s a great read, but again, it jars badly with the rest of the text, and is essentially a pure fantasy romp, although Mitchell is brilliant at using obscure jargon to create a threatening atmosphere. I was left feeling that The Bone Clocks could be edited into at least two novels – and lose very little from it – especially when the Horologists are used to engineer a deus ex machina ending.

The other big thing about The Bone Clocks is that it’s an incredibly self-referential novel, which adds to the sense that Mitchell is playing a game rather than writing serious fiction. I’m not a committed enough Mitchell fan to spot all the references, but he makes some pretty obvious; Hugo was a character in Black Swan Green and Dr Marinus, one of the Horologists, hails from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. There’s also been a lot of debate about real-world references in the novel; is Crispin a portrait of Martin Amis? Although there’s nothing wrong with such references, I do always find them a bit cheap – it’s an easy trick to appear clever – and it doesn’t help with the overall feel of the novel. In a way, none of this matters. The Bone Clocks is fantastically entertaining, and I would definitely recommend it. But sometimes I wish David Mitchell would set a few more limitations on his impressive imagination.


  1. It's interesting that this was your favourite, whilst I found it my worst Mitchell. I think that shows he is dividing fans with his style. I was gripped to his earlier books, but really struggled with this one and ended up abandoning it. I want him to write more books in the style of Black Swan Green!

  2. Hi Jackie - I was just reading your review and meant to comment! Though I enjoyed The Bone Clocks, I definitely agree that Mitchell can be at his best when he puts more restrictions on himself. I liked Black Swan Green a lot because he forced himself to stay put with one character and one geographical area, and I would like to see more of that.