Friday, 3 April 2015

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

I finished this book a week ago, and I've been trying to figure out what to write in the review ever since. First of all, where do I slot it in among the three other Mitchell books I've read? These are books that have gotten me very close to being able to declare that I'm a fangirl of his work. It's not as good as Cloud Atlas, but that's merely saying it's very good instead of a masterpiece. Do I like it more than Ghostwritten or less? Does a ranking really matter?

I think maybe it does because although I liked The Bone Clocks a whole damn lot, I had some of the same issues with the ending as I did with Ghostwritten, which is seeming like a David Mitchell thing. Both books are so wonderful and so heady and so in love with people. Then their ends are so depressing, that while they may be valid, it takes a bit of the wind out of my sails. It's hard to be as enthusiastic. (I am not, note, looking for a perfectly happy ending. It's just that at the ends of his books he can get so damn bleak that it feels somewhat dissonant from what has gone before.)

Then again, Mitchell is all about dissonance, about blending genres and tones, and it's what I love. It's that it's that note at the end, always at the end.

I have another quibble, but this time it's with reviewers and critics, not with David Mitchell. It is this: There. Are. No. Damn. Wizards. In. This. Book.  So many reviews, "I liked it until the wizards, the wizards threw everything off, the wizards blahblahblah." No wizards! I heard that and assumed that people were being dumb about Mitchell switching genres and we'd end up in a fantasy land at some point. But there are no wizards! And while there is some genre-jumping, it's much more subtle than some of his other books.

It's a book about the life cycle, people as bone clocks, the passing of one, the emergence of another. There are those who are bound to the wheel in an entirely different way, through reincarnation and the ability to move souls to different bodies. Being one of those beings, dear children, does not make one a wizard. Even the twisted ones who sacrifice other people to extend their own lives in some bizarre Satanic-type ritual if Satanism really worked, that's not really wizardry. If you're going to get huffy about genre, get it the fuck right. Seriously.

So I kept looking for wizards, and being puzzled. That's got nothing to do with David Mitchell. It's just that when you find out in detail about the opposing forces who exist behind the scenes of human life, some people find it a moment much like the frogs in the movie Magnolia - it's either a beautiful moment where it all comes together, or it completely throws some people out of the story.

Although it isn't immediately apparent, it's the story of one normal human life that gets mixed up in these centuries-long battles, that of Holly Sykes, whom we first meet as an English teenager running away from home, and follow her, sometimes through the stories of other people in her life, through all the ups and downs. Paired with that, although he only emerges once or twice, is Hugo Lamb, a character from Black Swan Green. (Mo from Ghostwritten also makes an appearance.)

Each chapter has a little clock running down in the margins, which created a lovely sense of tension. We check in with her or with people around her over the course of a lifetime, with all the death and birth that entails. Her path occasionally intersects with those who don't know why they keep coming back, but they do. It's about accepting mortality, for those for whom it is inescapable, and learning how best to be immortal, for those for whom that is equally so.

I enjoyed this book a great deal. One hundred pages in, I had that comfortable feeling you get when you're in the hands of the master storyteller. You know the story may be distressing, but also that the writer knows where he's going and what he's doing, and you can relax and be dragged along. By the flow of time, in this case.

And even the ending is good, and probably a needed warning of where Mitchell worries we might end up. It's not quite as dire as I may have made it sound. There's such love here, and it comes out in the worst of circumstances. Who can you save from the inevitability of death?

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