During a recent event with David Mitchell, I picked up his latest book “The Bone Clocks” as well as some of his earlier ones. I absolutely love everything that I’ve read by him, so he’s entered the category of authors who I like so much that I try to avoid reading them too quickly, so I’ll have more books to look forward to before exhausting the supply.
During his conversation, he’d mentioned something that I hadn’t really picked up on before, which is the fact that all of his books share connections. On the surface, they’re all written in pretty different literary styles and set in very different times and places, so I’ve tended to think of each one as being its own standalone thing. But, I’ve learned, certain characters will pop up in different novels, certain phrases will be repeated in different contexts, and some events which occur in one novel will be referenced in another. Therefore, you can easily think of all of these novels as existing in a single universe, which may or may not be our own universe, and the resonances across multiple books increases their impact the more you read them.
I don’t mean to oversell this point; all of his books absolutely stand on their own, and you can easily look at the links as being a kind of easter egg. But it is a great treat to discover that sort of consistency when it doesn’t call attention to itself.
The Bone Clocks unfolds over a stretch of time. Unlike Cloud Atlas, which switched between different narrators and spanned centuries, the story of The Bone Clocks mostly orbits around the life of a particular woman, from her teenage years through her old age. She anchors the first and last section of the book; the middle sections each are told from the point of view of a single person whose life intersects with her own. Each individual section lasts between a few days and many months, which jumps of about 15 years between sections.
The main protagonist, Holly Sykes, is a fantastic character. One of the advantages of such a long time span for the novel is that we can see her grow and mature over time: she remains recognizably the same person, but her life experiences have a profound impact on her attitudes and behaviors over time. She starts off as a fairly wild, naive, rebellious teenager, and swiftly turns into a considerate, caring, generous, thoughtful woman. I’ve seen transformations like that in people who I’ve known for decades, and it’s an impressive thing to believably demonstrate in a novel.
As a tangent: the novel’s treatment of gender as a mutable characteristic was interesting. I was reminded of Cloud Atlas; not so much the novel, but the movie, which famously featured actors crossing lines of age, race, and sex. I like how the novel doesn’t say “Gender doesn’t mean anything!” - the ending, in particular, makes it abundantly clear that men and women occupy very distinct levels of fortune - but it also considers gender to be an attribute and not core essence, which was a nifty perspective.
David Mitchell is one of the only authors apart from Haruki Murakami to completely nail a certain style of modern writing that I absolutely adore: novels that feel very grounded in the mundane details of daily life, but that seep with the suggestion that some strange, paranormal, possibly supernatural forces are lurking at the fringes of our experiences, subtly affecting our lives while remaining opaque. Murakami’s oddities have a slightly fantasy flavor about them, while Mitchell’s smell a bit more science-fiction-y. The Bone Clocks continues in this tradition, with several thrilling passages where the reader is abruptly jolted between the mundane and the supernatural world.
One of the things that most impressed me about The Bone Clocks was just how explicit Mitchell gets about the way his world works. I’m pretty used to Murakami and other authors doing a lot of suggesting and implying while almost never spelling out the details of how their systems work. For the most part this is great: it makes the world linger in my mind longer as I puzzle over what’s real and what isn’t. What Mitchell does here is an order of magnitude harder: build up that sense of mystery, then reveal that mystery, and have it continue to be exciting after the questions are answered. We end up with very clear explanations about what happened to Jacko, why Jacko behaved the way he did, what was going on with Ian and Heidi, just who the Blind Cathar was, not to mention where and when the Blind Cathar came from, how he operates in the present day, the implications of his triumph for the Horologists and the world at large. This would still have been a terrific book if, say, it ended with Crispin Hershey’s death, setting up an ominous but ambiguous epic struggle between vaguely-defined primal forces. Instead, it gets even better, as those forces are put into stark relief and their conflict is decisively resolved.
Just for fun, here’s an in-my-own-words summation of the novel’s metaphysics:
Every human being has a soul. When the person dies, their soul is released. It eventually passes into the Last Sea; nobody is certain what happens to it after that.
However, a few peoples’ souls work differently. Known as Atemporals, they are not bound in time to a single lifespan. There are several subgroups of atemporals. Returnees are reincarnated, and retain complete memories of their previous lives. When they die, their souls are untethered and sort of wander; after 49 days, they are reborn in the body of a young child. They don’t have any control over which body they end up in, but it always alternates between male and female over consecutive lives.
In contrast, Sojourners can willingly choose to abandon their bodies at any point, typically when close to death, and can select a new body to inhabit. In practice, they will often “take over” for a child who would otherwise have died, occupying the child’s body but retaining their own wisdom and knowledge. Unlike a Returnee, if a Sojourner dies their soul will be gone forever, so it’s important for them to move on to a new body at the correct time.
Because atemporals “live” for centuries or millennia, they have a ton of time to perfect their skills. This includes not only strong social and technical knowledge, but also a variety of psychic skills. These include “suasion”, a way of mentally implanting an idea in another person; subspeaking, a form of targeted telepathy; the ability to project mental force fields (as barriers or kinetic projectiles); and the ability to occupy another person’s consciousness, traveling in their body and seeing through their eyes.
All atemporals start out on their own, and most of them exist independently, either because they don’t realize there are others like them or because they prefer to keep to themselves. However, over time a group of these atemporals have gradually come together, forming a group that they call Horology. Horologists support one another and practice to develop their skills, but more importantly, they seek to protect humanity from the acts of malicious atemporals, and offer guidance for people who have latent psychic powers of their own.
The majority of people, of course, are born, live a full life, and then die, releasing their souls at the end. They are the eponymous “bone clocks”. A subset of these people have some inborn skill that enables them to use their chakra-eye and access seemingly supernatural abilities such as precognition or telepathy. Most of this subset never does anything with those skills. However, certain humans, known as Carnivores, are able to extend their lifespans indefinitely by consuming the life essence of other “potentials”. Carnivores aren’t born immortal like Atemporals: instead, they live in a single physical body, which can remain youthful forever, and prolong that life by engaging in this destructive ritual.
(As a side note: at the event, David Mitchell talked a bit about this, mentioning that he found the lure of immortality a rather believable one for explaining why otherwise good people might do horrible things. The traditional incentives that draw one towards evil are wealth and power. As he points out, if you want wealth you can try to become the head of a major corporation, and if you want power you can run for office; it’s not all that hard. But, for most of us, if someone offered to let us live forever if we violated our principles, we’d at least consider the offer.)
Many of these carnivores are rogues, and Horology was largely formed to shut them down; Horologists are kind of like shepards of humanity, protecting the vulnerable from the wolves. However, in recent centuries, a particular group of carnivores has posed a huge threat. Calling themselves Anchorites, they are centered around the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar. The Blind Cathar was a middle-ages monk who followed the anchorite heresy, a form of gnosticism which held that Satan created the physical world and all matter is intrinsically evil. The Blind Cathar created a space that bridged the physical world and the threshold of Dusk, the space where souls come from and return. He’s essentially an undead figure who has transmuted into the Chapel, able to communicate with his followers but not take physical form.
The Anchorites locate potential victims, lure them to the Chapel, and then the Blind Cathar opens his chakra-eye and devours the victim’s soul. The soul is decanted into Black Wine, drunk by all the followers. This wine allows them to continue living without aging for the next three months. They try to consistently keep their membership to 12: every three months, one of them will bring a fresh victim, with each member required to develop a potential once every three years.
The Horologists have battled the Anchorites for a long time, with very limited success. Even when they manage to destroy one of the Anchorites, the remainder can indoctrinate replacements culled from promising potentials. They aren’t able to enter the Chapel: only Anchorites can, and they can access the Chapel from anywhere on earth and also exit from the chapel to any other location, making it virtually impossible to trap them.
And, with that background (which isn’t wholly revealed until near the end of the book), here’s the main plot:
Before the book starts, Holly Sykes’ brother, Jacko, nearly dies of pneumonia. Actually, he does die, and a Horologist moves in to take over his body. He continues to act like Jacko, but betrays wisdom beyond his apparent years. Holly is able to telepathically hear voices, making her a potential psychic, and Miss Constantin, an Anchorite, begins grooming her for sacrifice. Another horologist, Dr. Marinus, is tipped off about what’s happening. He closes her chakra-eye, removing her psychic manifestations and depriving the Anchorites of a victim.
The Horologists begin to develop a plan. Knowing that the Anchorites will be peeved by their loss in this skirmish, they reason that they’re likely to try and strike back. And so, they have Jacko begin expressing psychic abilities as well, correctly expecting that the Anchorites will try to kidnap him instead. Multiple Horologist souls “stow away” in Jacko’s body when he is brought to the Chapel, where they plan to unleash a surprise attack, Trojan Horse style. However, as soon as Jacko enters the Chapel, the Blind Cathar senses their presence. He warns the other Anchorites, who swiftly attack the intruders. It’s a slaughter, wiping out most of the invaders, and dealing Horology a major blow. Many Anchorites are killed as well, but they’re in a better position to recover.
In the aftermath, Marinus and Esther encounter Holly, who happened to run away from home on the same day as their attack. Esther had anticipated that something might go wrong, and hid herself away inside Holly’s mind where the Anchorites wouldn’t be able to find her. Marinus dies while protecting Holly from a rampaging Anchorite; Holly survives, but her memory of the incident is erased. As far as she knows, her brother has disappeared.
Holly grows up. She has a one-night stand with a sociopath named Hugo Lamb. He seems to face a choice: continue on his current path, becoming a very successful and thoroughly despicable person; hold on to Holly, trying to become a better person and settling for a calmer, more fulfilling life; or joining the Anchorites, and living forever in exchange for acting even more immorally than before. He chooses to live forever.
Apparently abandoned by Hugo, Holly ends up with Ed, a childhood friend. They never actually marry, but together raise their child, Aoife. Ed is a combat reporter who works in a variety of deadline locations, including the Israel/Palestine border and post-invasion Iraq. Holly’s psychic abilities begin re-expressing themselves, including an ability to predict the future.
Ed dies, and Holly raises Aiofe on her own. She writes a memoir, The Radio People, that describes her childhood experiences and the loss of Jacko. She hopes that publishing the book will popularize Jacko’s absence; he was never found, and she thinks there’s a chance that someone will recognize him from the book. Instead, the book becomes an enormous bestseller, and Holly is raised out of near-poverty into an unexpected wealth. She and Aoife travel the world on publicity tours, where Holly faces much skepticism and some unwanted attention.
Esther’s long-laid plans begin to slowly move into action. Like Holly, she was able to see snatches of the future, and predicted the disaster. So she left behind hidden orders with seemingly inconsequential people, orchestrating events such that she could be rescued from Holly’s mind. This begins when Marinus receives a tempting offer from an Anchorite who claims to have had a change of heart and decided to betray the Chapel. Marinus is rightly skeptical of this overture, but, aided by prodding from Esther, he comes to the conclusion that in the long run the Anchorites will triumph over the Horologists, so the higher risk of a swift defeat is better than the certainty of a lengthy slide into irrelevance.
Marinus reveals herself to Holly, who understandably is overwhelmed by all this; her direct experiences of the conflict have previously been erased from her mind, and she has spent much of her life trying to deal with unexplained paranormal phenomena, not to mention hordes of con artists. Of course, merely by contacting her they bring her to the attention of the Anchorites; while they don’t perceive Holly as a threat, she is an annoying symbol to them, and they’re all to willing to destroy anyone who they think the Horologists care about. Holly is attacked, then rescued, and receives a fantastically detailed explanation about exactly what is going on. She decides to join with the Horologists.
This leads into a fantastic, super-natural, exciting climax, filled with betrayals, secret plans, noble sacrifices, valiant struggles, all presented in a terrifically kinetic manner that rushes forward while capitalizing on the depths of the characters we’ve gotten to know (at various ages and in various ages) over the course of the book. At the end, Horology is nearly wiped out, but the Anchorites are completely destroyed, leaving a thin but undeniable shred of hope.
The climax isn’t the finale, though. The last section of the book finally returns us to Holly’s point of view; while she’s been the constant character throughout the novel, this is the first time we’ve occupied her head since the very start when she was a reckless teenager, and it’s both rewarding and sad to sit inside her calmer, often sorrowful perspective. The last section doesn’t extend the exuberance of the the Horologist’s victory: we’re back on solid earth now, away from the transcendent struggle of immortals, and dealing with problems that our civilization has created for itself. As part of Mitchell’s overarching book-spanning metastory, this is a critical link between the modern day and the dystopic future which the inner chapters of Cloud Atlas present. In the earlier books, we had a sense for the causes: climate change, increasing inequality, a coarsening of society brought on by a winnowing of natural resources. Here, we’re seeing those early steps actually acted out. Holly belongs to the last generation that actually remembers the glory days we live in, with a worldwide Internet and global commerce and enshrined rights for women. She’s seeing that slip away, already lost in much of the world, and desperately maintained in a few fortunate pockets.
There is still a shred of hope, fortunately. Holly manages to secure a safer life for her progeny; it’s a great sign of her generous heart that this doesn’t just include her granddaughter, but also an adopted refugee orphan. The promised land is Iceland, which is geographically isolated from the rising chaos and has the discipline to enforce needed policies that adapt to the bad new world. We see that the surviving Horologists have largely thrown in with the Icelandic government, acting as sort of shepherds to the human race: not ruling them, but doing all in their power to support the good that people seek to do. Lorelei and the horologists and the other fortunate few will eventually become the Prescients, that technologically advanced but largely hopeless society that appear, almost god-like, in the heart of Cloud Atlas. With them, we sense, is a chance for eventual salvation from mankind’s great mistakes.
Awesome book! I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Mitchell, and this book continues the trend. A lot of people have been comparing it to Cloud Atlas, and there are certainly some superficial similarities - the shifts through time, multiple narratives - but it feels pretty distinct to me. There’s a much greater willingness to embrace the fantastical and the surreal, and a bit less groundedness in individual acts of kindness or cruelty.
I’ve been reading his stuff out of order, so I’m looking forward to diving back in to the backlog. I can’t wait to see what I find next!