Why ‘The Bone Clocks’ took my breath away

David Mitchell’s novel, The Bone Clocks, passed me by last year although several of my writer friends raved about it. But I am on a writer’s quest to read even more widely than I used to. Everything is inspiration: popular novels, YA, book club novels, clever writing, predictable writing, and – above all – successful writing.

David Mitchell is a writer who defies convention and breaks basic rules and that is the first thing I admire about him. His novel spans decades and jumps from one character to another, each character a tangent away from the main storyline and the central protagonist.

His first persona in The Bone Clocks is a 15 year old girl who runs away from home after an argument with her parents. A predictable scenario which would usually persuade any reader over 17 to skip pages, but not with writing of this quality. Mitchell delves straight away into the persona of Holly Sykes and he is very clever at signposting: the reader knows there are bigger issues out there, just waiting to happen. Holly is the protagonist of the story and we meet her again through the eyes of other narrators. She is the character around whom the cosmically strange stuff is happening. (No more spoilers.)

Another persona is the amoral and irritating Cambridge rat, Hugo Lamb who meets Holly at a ski resort: the subsidiary characters in this section are a little stereotypical, mildly amusing but the section really works because of the narrative style and the fast-paced action. Mitchell interweaves reality and surreality. The result is never predictable or boring and the reader is always carried forward towards what we know will become an inevitable clarification of this strange ‘atemporal’ world and it’s effect on the other characters.

Each section is fascinating in its own right. There is a narration by Holly’s partner, Ed Brubeck, who is a war correspondent in Iraq. Mitchell shows us tender scenes with Brubeck and his  family at a wedding and then whisks us to action-scenes in Iraq which are chilling and all too credible, making Brubeck’s dilemma excruciating. Then a satirical section follows, where an arrogant author called Crispin is at a book festival in Hay-on-Wye. His interviews are hilarious and we realise his career is failing. The subsequent section is a complete contrast, delivering up an ongoing battle between immortals.

Another skill Mitchell has is his ability to bend genre: is this book YA, fantasy, literary fiction? Yes, it is all of them. It is a really accessible book but this brings me to talk about Mitchell’s greatest skill. His writing, at times profound, always interesting, offering up apposite descriptions, is exceptional. He possesses the ability to select a superb descriptive phrase, a pertinent word.

Writing in the role of different personae demonstrates his stylistic skills: we believe readily in the different characters by their voice, their idiosyncrasies, and their backstories. Mitchell is an imaginative and intelligent writer but, no matter how outlandish and surreal his ideas, we accept them as real. His creations of fictitious beings and strange worlds or unexpected actions  are complex but they are never clumsy: we are always in safe hands with his writing.

He is also mischievous, and this is a great quality in his writing. Subtextually, he hints at his own literary reputation, and has an occasional nod to other writers. He is able to bring in characters from his earlier writing almost unnoticed and he obviously enjoys trickery within his writing to amuse the reader. But, above all, he is a teller of stories which are cleverly conceived and brilliantly interwoven. His writing is smooth but detailed and rich. His characters are entertaining and credible within a theme which demands that we accept a dual world of normal and atemporal beings and that we empathise with characters who can straddle and become embroiled in both worlds.

The Bone Clocks is a really good read for people of all ages. It is enthralling and always surprising. Mitchell makes jokes with the ordinary and makes the extra-ordinary accessible, whilst engrossing the reader in the sheer quality of his prose, using exactly the right words to transport the reader’s imagination.


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