Brilliance & Brutality: David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks

Empires die, like all of us dancers in the strobe-lit dark. See how the light needs shadows.

Just before The Bone Clocks was published, David Mitchell wrote a Twitter story called “The Right Sort,” which has been collected in full on The Millions.

The Bone ClocksMitchell calls Neil Gaiman one of his greatest fantasy influences, and here you can see why – the horror and absurdity in “The Right Sort” is very like Gaiman’s latest, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. But David Mitchell far surpasses Gaiman in his literary ability, scope and ambition. The Twitter story is a deliciously spooky read, and the most successful one of its kind, in my opinion. But it’s only a taste of what you’ll find in The Bone Clocks. It is not a preview, or prequel, exactly, but it “occupies the same universe.” One where, to summarize, the mind is both a weapon and a battleground, our little life is rounded with a sleep to which some beings are immune, and the mundane is pierced suddenly and briefly with wondrous sights we will never understand.

Cloud AtlasThe Bone Clocks, like Mitchell’s award-winning Cloud Atlas, is told with linked narratives. This novel, however, is not so tightly constructed. The symmetry is not explicit, the connection between characters is more grounded in the mess of reality, and the aforementioned universe is expanded until it becomes clear that nearly all of Mitchell’s work will be set within it. Mitchell’s fans will recognize recurring characters and entities, part of what he has dubbed his “uber-novel.”

The novel begins in the voice of Holly Sykes, a runaway of fifteen years, scathing and sassy and delightfully (Britishly) teenaged. She’s left behind a loving, if complicated, family life to embark on a short, ill-conceived, monumental journey. Her mind and heart just beginning to mature, she’s full of wisdom like:

‘What if … what if Heaven is real, but only in moments? Like a glass of water on a hot day when you’re dying of thirst, or when someone’s nice to you for no reason, or …’ Mam’s pancakes with Toblerone sauce; Dad dashing up from the bar just to tell me, ‘Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite’; or Jacko and Sharon singing ‘For She’s A Squishy Marshmallow’ instead of ‘For She’s A Jolly Good Fellow’ every single birthday and wetting themselves even though it’s not at all funny; and Brendan giving his old record player to me instead of one of his mates. ‘S’pose Heaven’s not like a painting that’s just hanging there forever, but more like … like the best song anyone ever wrote, but a song you only catch in snatches, while you’re alive, from passing cars, or … upstairs windows when you’re lost …

After Holly we meet Hugo Lamb, a collegiate sociopath, Ed Brubeck, an embittered war correspondent, writer Crispin Hershey, and… well, beyond that are spoilers. It has to be said that the first narrative switch is startling, and feels like a loss. You will miss Holly deeply. But she reappears – in fact, more than a tale of an age-old war between immortals, this is Holly’s life story.

If this sounds like it all might be a bit much, well, David Mitchell’s ahead of you. In the center of The Bone Clocks’ structure is the story of Crispin Hershey, an author in the throes of serious depression. Growing in his irrelevance, becoming acutely aware of his age, contempt thickening like fat in his veins, this narrator’s is a voice filled with bile. In a review of Crispin’s latest book, a colleague says:

…One: Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliché that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look. Three: What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?

Each a point that could be made about The Bone Clocks itself. In an interview, Crispin is asked to what degree his protagonist, Trevor Upward, “whose morality is decidedly elastic, modeled upon his maker?” He responds:

‘Trevor Upward is a misogynist prick who gets exactly what he deserves on the final page. How, dear Maeve, could a royal arse like Trevor Upward’ – I flash a smile of mock innocence – ‘possibly be modeled on a man like Crispin Hershey?’

You see, any criticism we might have of Mitchell has been preempted by Crispin’s own self-loathing and -mockery. And though his voice is negative where Holly and Hugo are light, jaded where Ed Brubeck, for all his sadness and confusion, is fiercely passionate, Crispin makes you laugh out loud. And instead of coming to dislike him as much as he can’t stand himself, I found I grew fonder of him along the way.

And Holly? Well, she feels a more authentic character than I’ve read in a while – particularly a female character written by a man. Though more beset by tragedy than your average British Gen-Xer, not to mention one who experiences ghostly voices and premonitions, Holly is varied, flawed, aching, and her complex entanglements, romantic and otherwise, reminded me of those of people I know. This is no grand love story – it is a series of broken ones. And setting aside this story’s fantastic elements, that is the real world at its most raw and heartbreaking. Perhaps her story is so affecting as it’s told not just from her own point of view, but from those of the people who love her. The Holly they each know, the Holly at each age, begin to build a picture of a whole person.

Anyway, I haven’t even gotten to that war of the immortals I mentioned. I’ve yet to bring up political commentary on the war in Iraq, or a dystopian future where the internet has died. It’s all in there. And I didn’t find that it “violently clashed.” Much the opposite! Reincarnation, labyrinths in the twilight beyond this life, psychic traveling souls trapped in a memory, the pain of divorce, the sharp and sudden shock of loss, an interminable wedding ceremony, a long walk, a love affair, an argument – Mitchell has written all these and more in the same tone, with the same wit and detail, and by the end you believe in his universe. None of it seems impossible. He knows well the incredible brilliance and brutality of life, and he leaves you open to it all.

David Mitchell
Recommended Reading on The Bone Clocks:

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LauraLaura Horwood-Benton is PPL’s Public Programming & Community Relations Librarian. She enjoys literary and speculative fiction, vegan baking, drawing and traveling.  If you have suggestions for future book reviews OR library events, email her at

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