We enter David Mitchell’s new novel, “The Bone Clocks,” through a conventional door: Holly Sykes, a mouthy British teenager in 1984, is sleeping with an older guy and spending time with a bad-news best friend. After a fight she decides to take off, a short runaway jag, the kind designed to teach her concerned family a lesson. “Six days should do it…" she thinks, “Six days’ll show Mam I can look after myself in the big bad world.”
There are many kinds of novels this could become: A bildungsroman, a commentary on Thatcherite England, a horror story, a YA romance. “The Bone Clocks” is none of them.
Mitchell earned a devoted readership with 2004’s “Cloud Atlas,” a novel of profound emotions that jumped across centuries and the globe with a stunning twist: its innovative structure. This was such a signature element that it loomed over his subsequent books. Could he ever write anything as brilliant?
He ducked the issue in “Black Swan Green” (2006), a semi-autobiographical novel about a boy growing up with a stutter. With “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” (2010), a historical novel set in Edo-era Japan, it appeared that Mitchell was setting aside his ambitions to blaze a unique literary trail.
With “The Bone Clocks,” Mitchell rises to meet and match the legacy of “Cloud Atlas.” The novel tells the story of Holly Sykes’ life in six episodes while also, surprisingly, linking his books set in 20th-century England, 18th-century Japan and various far futures.
Mitchell, whose work has dipped into science fiction, commits to the genre with a huge dose of the supernatural in “The Bone Clocks.” Into Holly’s life drop two magical beings in the guise of humans locked in a horrible, bloody battle. While their appearance in the book is fleeting, these creatures will grow in importance, eventually tying together all of Mitchell’s narratives into what he calls an “ubernovel.” Think William Faulkner meets George R.R. Martin.
While they take real human form, these supernatural beings appear out of thin air and have psychic powers — they erase Holly’s conscious memory of them. What lingers instead is a tragedy that happens while she is away from home — her little brother disappears.
The book has a straightforward chronology, following Holly from her teen years into old age in 2043. But it is only at the beginning and the end that we see things from her point of view; other sections are narrated by four male characters, with Holly in the wings. Even when it’s our own life’s story, the book says, it’s not always about us.
The protagonists are Hugo Lamb (from “Black Swan Green”), now a caddish Cambridge student getting away with a little too much; Holly’s husband, Ed, a foreign correspondent who knows his marriage is in trouble but can’t stop thinking about covering war-wracked Iraq; Crispin Hershey, an author whose career is on the downswing and is seeking revenge over a bad review; and Marinus, a 21st century doctor.
Marinus was also a physician three centuries earlier in “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.” How he is connected to the supernatural forces that have briefly surfaced throughout “The Bone Clocks” is eventually explained. Without revealing too much about Mitchell’s complex cosmology — for its discovery is one of the fascinating aspects of the book — there is a small force of quiet do-gooders and a larger contingent of selfish bad guys who prey upon the young to remain immortal.
Are they vampires? “Oh, the V-word,” groans one of the good guys. “Here it comes again.” Literally, no; metaphorically, yes. “One of my serial repeating themes is predacity,” Mitchell told the Paris Review in 2010, and in fact, “Cloud Atlas” and “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” include cannibals.
As a central character, Holly is an odd amalgam. The glimpses of the supernatural universe surrounding her are effaced from her consciousness, so she has no curiosity about them, no yearning to reach or understand them, no quest. She lives a very human life, with loves, losses and achievements, which is heroic on its own.
Yet superhuman destiny awaits; Marinus enlists her to play a part in a looming battle royale.
By the time we reach 2043, the world is very different from our own: Resources are scarce; civilization is falling apart. Everyone has a tablet, but there’s not much electricity and the Internet has mostly gone offline. Holly, now a grandmother, has a home in Ireland that looks a lot like Iraq when her husband was there: an endangered populace trying to maintain normalcy under an unreliable stabilizing force.
The dystopia is disturbing in its realism. Mourning, Holly bursts into tears. “It’s grief for the regions we deadlanded, the ice caps we melted, the Gulf Stream we redirected, the rivers we drained, the coasts we flooded, the lakes we choked with crap, the seas we killed, the species we drove to extinction, the pollinators we wiped out, the oil we squandered, the drugs we rendered impotent, the comforting liars we voted into office — all so we didn’t have to change our cozy lifestyles…" she thinks. “My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of the Earth’s Riches knowing — while denying — that we’d be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid.”
Holly sees her generation — Mitchell’s generation — as ancient cannibals and metaphoric vampires, consuming the young. Just when it seemed like he was entering a mythological world, Mitchell cycles back to reality.
In “The Bone Clocks,” interconnected lives stretch across time; human contact is both frightening and vital. This novel electrifyingly unites Mitchell’s fictions into one universe while telling the story of Holly Sykes, an ordinary young woman whose chance encounters give her life meaning. She is a hinge in this story, and in the arc of Mitchell’s work, which has taken a fantastic turn.
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The Bone Clocks
Random House: 640 pp., $30