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The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

David Mitchell is something of an oxymoron; he is generally respected in literary circles and has achieved significant mainstream success, yet he seems to delight in crossover and references between his works like he’s Stephen King or Kevin Feige. It’s a difficult balance to pull off and I don’t know if many people could do it, but Mitchell manages it with aplomb. As good as his last couple of books were, particularly The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, they didn’t aim for the same lofty ambition of Cloud Atlas; until The Bone Clocks that is.

As with Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, The Bone Clocks is split into several chunks following different characters telling different stories. The links between the stories of those books were largely thematic, but in The Bone Clocks each genuinely does feel like the chapter of a larger story. The protagonist of that story is Holly Sykes, our first narrator who runs away at the age of 15 in the early 1980s. She also narrates the final section and in between we are given stories from people whose lives intersect with hers. We have Hugo Lamb who Mitchell superfans will remember as the sadistic cousin of Jason in Black Swan Green and his selfish climb to the top. Next is Ed, a journalist covering the early years following the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Crispin Hershey follows, a Martin Amis esque fellow a few years past his prime. Eventually we come to Marinus, an Atemporal being who has reincarnated dozens of times, last seen as a gruff botanist on Dejima in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and now living as a doctor. All of these figures have a part to play in a grand struggle between good and evil, although the fundamental inability for humanity to learn from its mistakes causes greater suffering than any conscious malevolence.

The Bone Clocks is a sequel or sorts to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, as well as a prequel to the ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ section of Cloud Atlas. Immortality has been a preoccupation of Mitchell’s for a while and The Bone Clocks jumps head first into it, with a whole thought our lore and process governing the different ways immortality can be achieved. We saw the beginning of this in the monstrous Abbot Enomoto in Jacob de Zoet and Mitchell develops the concept here. Mitchell’s style has tended more towards the realm of magic realism rather than fantasy, but Mitchell has finally committed to the genre. The result isn’t perfect; being relatively new to the genre Mitchell makes a couple of rookie mistakes. One is too much jargon, much of which is at best forgettable and at worst just plain silly. The second is an over reliance on exposition to explain what is going on rather than letting the story get there organically. This is far from a deal breaker though with the fantasy elements intertwined with the science fiction and normality very nicely. Mitchell is excellent at taking the relatively mundane and making it thrilling and entertaining; just look at Black Swan Green. 70% of The Bone Clocks isn’t about an ancient war between two feuding factions of immortals, instead focusing on more grounded and relatable exploits and it all manages to be equally interesting. The inner bitterness and pettiness of Crispin Hershey gripped me as much as the fantastical stuff and neither undermines the other. The Bone Clocks isn’t as perfectly put together as Cloud Atlas and is certainly much rougher round the edges, but for something so ambitious to succeed as much as it does is truly triumphant.

Mitchell’s dialogue and general prose is as excellent as ever, with a highlight being a nice little repeat of his Nagasaki descriptive rhyming technique seen in Jacob de Zoet, this time used to describe a bustling Cambridge bar. Mitchell is a literary polymath, seemingly able to leap into any genre comfortably. Mitchell balances lyrical beauty and literary flairs with compulsive readability; I would argue that this is one of the most important skills that a writer can demonstrate.

The characters of The Bone Clocks aren’t necessarily as vivid as those of Cloud Atlas, but that is because unlike Cloud Atlas there is a central protagonist holding the story together; the wonderful Holly Sykes. We follow Holly for pretty much her entire life and Mitchell manages to capture the perfect voice for every age. The teenage Holly we see at the beginning is probably the best though, being a genuinely flawed and believably teenager rather than the extreme monsters or geniuses we often see. Crispin Hershey is a great character as well and Hugo Lamb matures well from his cameo introduction in Black Swan Green. The one slight disappointment is Marinus, who never particularly comes alive in her current form than he did as the doctor on Dejima in Jacob de Zoet (pronouns are hard). She exists in The Bone Clocks mostly to support Holly, but I’d have loved to have seen more of her. The glimpses of her past lives we get in The Bone Clocks made me want much more.

The Bone Clocks is Mitchell at his baffling best and the kind of novel that I’ve been desperate for him to return to. There are some elements which don’t quite work as well as others but the grand ambition of it all holds the experience together. There really is no other writer out there quite like Mitchell.

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Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Black Swan Green is probably David Mitchell’s most straightforward novel, but that doesn’t make it any less striking. Mitchell’s imagination is such that he generally creates fantastic settings or makes the real seem fantastical, such as the dreamlike Tokyo of number9dream, but Black Swan Green is a tale of normality that Mitchell nonetheless makes riveting.

It is 1982 and Jason Taylor is a 13 year old boy with a stammer, living in the sleepy village of Black Swan Green. Black Swan Green follows 13 months of his life, with each chapter covering a month, from January 1982 to January 1983. Along the way we experience Jason’s insecurity, budding poetry skill, growing interest in the opposite sex and bullying.

Black Swan Green doesn’t follow a traditional narrative as such, instead reading as 13 interconnected pieces of short fiction. This kind of fractured narrative is of course nothing new for Mitchell, in fact I may go so far as to call it his trademark. As with his other books, all of the separate parts form a cohesive whole when viewed together. Where Cloud Atlas looked at grand themes such as reincarnation, or Ghostwritten at the tiny coincidences that define our lives, Black Swan Green opts to focus on the life of a British teenage boy in the 1980s. Mitchell tackles a variety of topics as he goes, such as the Falklands War, small town bigotry and the nature of poetry and he looks at all with remarkable grace.

In the wrong hands, this is exactly the kind of book which could have been excruciatingly boring. Mitchell’s writing is just so evocative and elegiac that it’s nigh impossible not to get swept up in what’s happening, even if it’s fairly mundane. This book is funny too, with Mitchell being more than willing to look at the more ridiculous sides of being a teenager. There are these wonderful moments where Jason will ponder something fairly profound and then undercut it something hilariously crude. Jason may be an exceptionally empathetic and sensitive teenage boy, but he’s still a teenage boy.

Jason is a likeable character, but the supporting cast are well developed too. His contemporaries at school, both friends and bullies are vividly drawn. In fact, one is Neal Brose who fans of Ghostwritten might remember and it’s interesting to see how he ended up the way he is. There’s also a startlingly touching Cloud Atlas connection which actually moved me to tears. It’s utterly bizarre that David Mitchell has created his own expanded universe, but I love it. 

Black Swan Green sounded like it wouldn’t be my sort of thing, but I loved it. Every single Mitchell novel is a treat and I now only have one left, which I’m looking forward to tucking in to.

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