I don’t know if I’ve ever loved a David Mitchell book. They’re always well-written and unpredictable, but I usually find them overlong and unengrossing. The best thing I can say about his books is that they’re consistently ambitious. And even though that ambition rarely translates into a masterpiece (in my opinion, even though I really enjoyed Cloud Atlas) I’m always interested in hearing what Mitchell has to say. Unfortunately, his latest book The Bone Clocks is a disjointed jumble of a novel, capable of providing interesting ideas but never coalescing into something brilliant.
In 1984, after a roaring fight with her mother, 15-year-old Holly Sykes runs away from home. Her mother doesn’t approve of Holly’s 20-something boyfriend (who’s a cheater anyway) and Holly has too much pride to come crawling back to home. She runs away for a few days and finds work picking fruit, all the while childishly daydreaming of how everyone at home must be worried sick and looking for her. That sounds like average teenage girl melodrama. But there’s something about Holly that’s different; contacted by voices she calls “The Radio People,” she’s something of a lightning rod for psychic phenomena, and finds herself in the middle of a fantastical war that she knows nothing about.
The book starts with Holly in the 80s, and boomerangs back to her in 2043. Between those two stories are other large and related narratives. We’re introduced to a college-aged sociopath, a war-junkie journalist, a vengeful author and a cryptic doctor fighting in a centuries-long battle between two tribes of immortals (yup). The only thing these people have in common is Holly Sykes.
Readers might draw a connection between this story and Cloud Atlas, but those who do so are destined to be disappointed. In Cloud Atlas, the six narratives only had the “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” a beautiful piece of music in common. They had different things to say. In The Bone Clocks, I’d spend the beginning of each story just looking for Holly like a literary Where’s Waldo. The stories are entertaining, but not coherent.
Not surprisingly, the Holly chapters carry the emotional heft of the book. The sections around the men who met her were interesting enough, but I didn’t particularly care what happened to them. Despite enjoying scifi and fantasy books, the story lagged during the battle between the good immortals and the evil, cannibal immortals. The book sputters in the section, but regains steam when we come back to an older Holly living in Ireland, raising her grandchildren during the apocalypse, ending the book on a high and thrilling note.
Ultimately, fans of David Mitchell’s style will enjoy The Bone Clocks. For agnostics like me, it’s a mixed bag. There’s a lot to like; Mitchell’s a more than competent author and it’s always a treat to read something that refuses to be stuffed into a single genre. But I was never fully engaged in the story, rendering it enjoyable, but ultimately forgettable.