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David Mitchell – The Bone Clocks

January 24, 2016

Mitchell, David - The Bone Clocks - 40077. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (2014)

Read By: Jessica Ball, Leon Williams, Colin Mace, Steven Crossley, Laurel Lefkow, Anna Bentinck
Length: 24h 30m (656 pages)

Genre: Contemporary Fiction / Fantasy

Started: 14 November 2015
Finished: 11 December 2015

Where did it come from? From Audible.
Why do I have it? I read several of David Mitchell’s books about 10 years ago and liked them, but haven’t been back since (for no good reason), so the publication of his new book that is a semi-sequel to Bone Clocks gave me the push I needed.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 19 September 2015.

Life tip from Holly:
Don’t get used as a pawn in
an immortals’ war.

Summary: Holly Sykes has never been entirely normal: as a child, she could hear the voices of what she called “the radio people” – that no one else could hear. But 15-year-old Holly runs away from home over a perfectly normal fight with her parents over her boyfriend… but then encounters a number of strange people and even stranger happenings, before she gets the news that her younger brother Jacko has disappeared. The events of that time will shape rest of her life, not only because of the loss of her brother, because Holly has unknowingly become emmeshed in a conflict between two powerful groups that has gone on for centuries — a conflict that will affect not only Holly, but also all those closest to her. This book is structured in six novellas over the course of Holly’s life, with the first (in 1985) and last (in 2043) narrated by Holly, and the intervening ones narrated by other characters who intersect her life, such as a wealthy Cambridge boy in Austria for the winter holidays, a journalist who has returned to England and his family after being reporting on the Iraq War, an author whose first book was a success but who is struggling to return to the spotlight.

Review: It’s probably unavoidable due to the way that this book was structured, but I’m going to start out by comparing it to Cloud Atlas. I read Cloud Atlas almost a decade ago, just when I’d barely started reviewing, but I really liked it, and thought its loosely interconnected stories moving forward (and then backwards) through time was just so cool and innovative. The Bone Clocks is similar in a lot of ways to Cloud Atlas, but it’s a lot less loose – all of the stories tie in much more directly to Holly and the path her life has taken. And in some ways that helped the story – gave it more of a coherent narrative thread – but in other ways it really, really didn’t.

Namely, the first section, where we’re still meeting Holly and getting our footing, is very good. Mitchell writes extremely well-fleshed out characters and believable dialogue and vivid scenery, and then he throws in a bunch of really weird bizarre supernatural stuff happening, capped off with a hell of a twist. So by that point I was dying to find out what happened… and then that part of the story just stopped. We leave Holly behind, pick up with Hugo Lamb, with no indication that we’re going to hear from Holly again OR find out what’s happening with the supernatural stuff. And while Holly reappears relatively quickly, the explanation of what’s happening behind the scenes is teased out in the tiniest dribs and drabs for most of the book, until there’s a giant infodump of explanation in the fifth section. And by that point, my initial intrigue that had been generated by the compelling hook of the first part had worn thin over the course of the three intervening stories. It didn’t help that I found the narrators of two of these sections (Hugo Lamb and Crispin Hershey, the Cambridge student and the author, respectively) pretty unlikable; both of them are exactly the sort of arrogant, self-absorbed guys who think way more highly of themselves than they actually merit, and wear on my patience remarkably quickly, let alone over the course of a novella in which they (of course) think they are the hard-done-by protagonist.

So I felt like the pacing was off in the first 2/3s of the book: good hook, but then too slow for too long with too many unrelated diversions. Then came the fifth section, which was exposition and big climactic battle all in one. I don’t want to spoil it too much, but I came away almost but not quite convinced by the veracity of the supernatural world that Mitchell had created – I could suspend disbelief for a lot of it but it didn’t quite hang together for me. But this section still had way more action than we’d seen since the beginning of the book, and the strange things from the first part finally had all paid off, so I was happy to go along with it. But then we get to the sixth section. And maybe (almost certainly) this has to do with the fact that realistically-built post-energy-crisis near-future sci-fi makes me antsy, particularly when it’s plausible (see also: The Wind-Up Girl), but I would have been just fine if Mitchell had ended the book at the end of the fifth section. The last section, while it did introduce some sympathetic new characters, and did tie up some loose ends, just didn’t really feel necessary, and wasn’t as much fun to listen to, even apart from the uncomfortable-making setting.

As was the case for Cloud Atlas, each section of the audiobook was read by a different narrator, which really did help give each of the novellas a distinct feel. However, it did mean that I couldn’t skim through some of the slower and more tangential parts, which, despite the excellent writing and well-built characters, ultimately made this book feel at least 20-30% longer than it really needed to be. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I suspect people’s reaction to this book is going to depend on how much patience they have to follow Mitchell as he goes off on narrative excursions. It worked for me in Cloud Atlas, which was basically entirely made up of narrative excursions, but in this case, I just wanted him to hurry up and explain what was going on with Holly. Worth trying if you like Mitchell’s other work, or like contemporary fiction with a touch or three of dark fantasy stirred into the mix.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Lots and lots of them at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: I fling open my bedroom curtains, and there’s the thirsty sky and the wide river full of ships and boats and stuff, but I’m already thinking of Vinny’s chocolaty eyes, shampoo down Vinny’s back, beads of sweat on Vinny’s shoulders, and Vinny’s sly laugh, and by now my heart’s going mental and, God, I wish I was waking up in Vinny’s place in Peacock Street and not in my own stupid bedroom.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2016 9:11 am

    I was a little more scathing in my review, but with similar criticisms. I was hoping for so much more!

    The review’s here, if you’re interested:


  1. David Mitchell – Slade House | Fyrefly's Book Blog

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