David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas was a brilliant, confounding book that brought together a host of times and places into an interlocking story of oppression and self-discovery. It's hard to imagine how anyone could top that — but his new novel, the somewhat more cohesive The Bone Clocks, may have done just that.
Some spoilers ahead...
Without giving too much away, The Bone Clocks is more firmly speculative fiction than Cloud Atlas was, and it also has a much tighter storyline, even though it still spans decades and continents.
In The Bone Clocks, we meet Holly Sykes, a young girl in the early 1980s who has the ability to hear voices, and also experiences precognitive visions. She calls the voices in her head The Radio People, and they help her to cope with being stuck in the nowhere town of Gravesend, where her father has a pub. But the Radio People are just a hint of a much larger conspiracy, involving a war between two factions of immortals, in which Holly turns out to be a vital part.
The book follows Holly as she runs away from home as a teenager, and then jumps ahead in time again and again. We follow a young Talented Mr. Ripley-type schemer named Hugo Lamb, a war correspondent named Ed Brubeck and a bitter has-been author named Crispin Hershey, glimpsing the shape of the book's central conflict, before the war between immortals finally heats up and the book reaches an actually nail-biting climax.
And that's probably all I ought to reveal about the book's plot, as such. As with Cloud Atlas, part of the joy of this book is seeing connections between characters and different times and places emerge, and seeing a complex pattern slowly take shape.
But I already mentioned this book is about immortals, which isn't much of a spoiler — and the theme of immortality, perversely, allows Mitchell to comment on the passage of time. We don't find out what the book's title refers to until fairly late in the book, and by then it feels crushingly appropriate — it's a reference to mortality and the way in which ordinary people bear the weight of years.
And books about immortality are always, to some extent, about history — last year, both Life After Life and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August exploited the notion of someone reliving the twentieth century over and over again, which makes the rise and fall of nations and societies feel even more like waves hitting the shore over and over again.
But in Bone Clocks, even more than in Cloud Atlas, Mitchell is looking at the smallness of people trapped in history — and being able to see the shape of the design only makes you feel smaller, it turns out. This time around, he picks up contrasts between the brutal British colonization of New Zealand and Southeast Asia, and the Bush-era occupation in Iraq, and finally, a series of horrible events in the 2040s. They feel of a piece. The human race is absurdly short-sighted and monstrous.
And there are just so many great musings about the nature of time and places, and how a really great city can seem timeless. Like this bit, from towards the end of the book:
I notice details I ordinarily overlook. Faces, textures, materials, signs, flows. There are days when New York strikes me as a conjuring trick. All great cities do and must revert to jungle, tundra, or tidal flats, if you wait long enough... Today, however, New York's here-ness is incontestable, as if time is subject to it, not it subject to time.
And the mythos in Bone Clocks is incredibly well sketched-out, and both clever and deceptively simple. The big revelations that come late in the book make absolute perfect sense in the context of the book's beginning, and among the book's many other achievements, Mitchell is teaching a bit of a master class in how to interweave the paranormal with "real life" in a way that feels seamless and lived-in. The rules of his immortal superpowers feel intuitive and weighty, even before they're explained to us.
This is also a much warmer book than Cloud Atlas, as if instead of just sketching invisible connections between people, Mitchell was showing a kind of extended family. The preciousness of our short, limited lives, against the huge backdrop of history, lies in the connections we make and in the families we create. It's a bit more intimate, and also sweeter, and shows just what it is we fight for, even when the fate of our world is probably already etched in stone.
And Mitchell also does a fantastic job of creating urgency and keeping you on the edge of your seat just as well as any thriller. Like one bit, where the young Holly Sykes is in danger, and she narrates: "Now it's like I've got headphones superglued on my ears and through one speaker I've got 'None of This is Happening' blaring and through the other 'All of This is Happening' going over and over at full blast." That's the best description of panic and disorientation ever.
If I had any complaints about The Bone Clocks, it would be first, that the section about the bitter former literary celebrity Crispin Hershey feels out of place and doesn't add as much to the book as the other sections — you can tell Mitchell had fun writing it, and it's fun to read — but it's also a bit of an indulgence. And also, towards the end of the book, the lecturing about the short-sightedness of our treatment of the environment gets more than a little heavy-handed, even though I agree with all of it.
But those are both minor complaints, about a book that succeeds both as a piece of speculative fiction — creating a cohesive storyline in which the big ideas feel like they matter and have emotional weight — and as a great story, with people you care about and a story that feels like real life, in the absolute best way. The Bone Clocks is both an adventure and a mind-expanding device. It'll probably stay with you through several lifetimes.