Today I’m writing to you from the past (October to be exact), which seems oddly appropriate for a book as concerned with temporality as David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. It’s a wonder that I’m reviewing it at all, as I spent most of the year forgetting that it was on my Reading Challenge list. I can never quite decide whether I like David Mitchell’s novels or not. I enjoyed The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which mostly read like straightforward historical fiction, but I found Cloud Atlas hard work – all clever structure but somehow lacking in substance. With that in mind, I went into The Bone Clocks unsure of what to expect.
The Bone Clocks is primarily the story of Holly Sykes, a woman with psychic ability, who is drawn into an unseen battle between immortal beings as the result of a rash promise in her teens. The story follows Holly from her teenage years in Kent, through to old age in a somewhat post-apocalyptic Ireland, not in a linear fashion, but in episodes roughly a decade apart. Each episode features Holly, but only in the first and last episodes to we see from her point of view; the middle section (the bulk of her life) is narrated by a succession of men who cross paths with her. The episodes are linked not just by Holly, but by secondary characters who move in and out of the story (and Mitchell’s other stories in a few cases), forging unexpected connections, and clearing up old mysteries.
I liked the premise of The Bone Clocks – that rather than focussing on the battle between good and evil, it focusses on the effects that this unseen battle have on Holly’s life – but not the execution. The story seemed to stop in the places where I wanted to know what happened next, and skip to something unrelated that didn’t interest me. Being constantly forced to engage with Holly through the men in her life, rather than knowing what she was thinking and feeling, left me with very little sympathy for her. This was particularly the case when the narration was from the viewpoint of self-absorbed characters like Hugo and Crispin, who were both unlikeable.
Mitchell has mentioned in interviews that this novel started from an experimental idea of exploring a person’s life through a series of short stories, and, while the story was gripping enough to keep me reading (even while cursing the parts I didn’t care about), I never got wrapped up in the characters and events enough to forget that I was reading a novel. Overall it was a frustrating experience, which has left me in no hurry to re-read The Bone Clocks.