Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Book Review: The Bone Clocks

I think its safe to say that I was a huge fan of Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. It hit just the right note of pretentious cleverness and playful genre-savvy, and managed to sweep me along with a bold structure, well drawn characters and great sense of what each section was, making it one of my favorite books of the last decade or so. I've been remiss in catching up with the rest of Mitchell's work, but I found out he had a new book - The Bone Clocks - released just as I was needing something to get stuck into for a couple of long hauls flights (that I'm sure I'll shut up about soon). And that just seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.

The Bone Clocks is the story of Holly Sykes, told over six periods of time and narrated by five different characters. Holly herself, of course, gets the first and the last. Each narrator brings a different tone to their story, each story has different stakes and different settings, but they contrive to stitch together a whole cloth that mingles a very realist tale with a very fantastical one. Each tale feels like a moment (or one case, a series of moments) taken almost at random from a life, starting with little preamble and occasionally ending abruptly, leaving you to try and catch up as the next one starts, feeling through for how it may have all ended, and how they intersect.

At the centre of it all is Holly, who we first meet as a teenager running away from home for largely teenaged reasons. We then only see her through others eyes for most of the rest of the book, as she grows and changes and loves and loses through her life, before meeting her own perspective again as an old woman on the edge of a failing civilization. She's a remarkable character - actually they all are, as Mitchell has a flair for well drawn characterisation that is on good display here, and she feels real and flawed and wonderful on the page at all stages of her life. Its also a life defined by great loss (often between sections, so you see the scars, not the wounds) and great strength. In fact, with nothing else added to it, this sort of portrait through time would be an engaging and interesting enough read on its own.

The other element of the book is a strange, meandering war between groups of immortals with great power, that intersect with Holly's story in strange and meandering ways. Its distinctive and interesting, and I can imagine some readers being put off by the dense, expository section where its all talked through, but I rather liked it. It's quite a novel take of Vampires/Angel/whatever sort of creatures living in humanities shadow and both the story, and more importantly the themes of their conflict bleed into Hollys world quite nicely.

Here is the thing though; I liked The Bone Clocks quite a lot but I think I was waiting for a bigger "wow moment" than I got. The section I mention above - where the two worlds of the story collide fully - is clearly the centre-piece but it didn't quite connect well enough to take my breath away and there was a familiarity to it I couldn't shake. This is reinforced in the final, "fall of the west" section that manages to feel a little too cosy for all its about the final collapse of civilisation into anarchy. It may just be that I come to the book from the genre side where many of the ideas have been kicked around a lot, for longer, although often without the technical excellence that is on display.

But that's a slight flaw against a book I hugely enjoyed. So go read it.