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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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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is in my top five all-time favourite books. I also really liked Ghostwritten, so I don’t know why I took so long to delve into David Mitchell’s other works. I suppose I liked the science fiction elements in those two novels and was worried that I wouldn’t enjoy his books so much without them; I still like the Iain M. Banks sci-fi more than the Iain Banks mainstream fiction. I was wrong to leave it so long; I loved The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and am now energised to make my way through Mitchell’s back catalogue.

This novel takes place as the 18th century turns into the 19th, primarily on the tiny man-made island of Dejima off the coast of Nagasaki. The Dutch have sole trading rights with the isolationist Empire of Japan and Jacob de Zoet is a young clerk who has travelled to Dejima to make some money before returning to his home in the Netherlands to marry his sweetheart Anna. In Dejima he meets Orito, a scarred yet alluring young midwife, who is being controversially trained in the art of medicine by the enigmatic Doctor Marinus. Taking place over decades, Jacob eventually discovers a dark secret at the heart of the local Japanese power yet in his position is powerless to do anything about it.

Despite taking place primarily in one very small location, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet feels like an epic. As I’ve been finding a lot with historical fantasy lately, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet tickled my fantasy bone. What Mitchell captures so wonderfully is just how mysterious and enigmatic a challenge Japan presented to the colonialist view of the East. English and Dutch attitudes to non-white people are made very clear in this novel through some truly nauseating treatment of African slaves and they speak with regular dripping content for Asian people as well. The English and Dutch were fairly used to conquering outside Europe with impunity, until they come to Japan and find a formidable nation that wants very little to do with them and could repel them without too much difficulty. Mitchell manages a fine balance between preserving a sense of mystery in Japan while avoiding the suspect Orientalist simplistic depiction of the East as a magical fantasy for Western consumption. There’s a strong element of magic realism in the whole thing, with Mitchell throwing a few very subtle hints our way that his universe isn’t necessarily one of purely rational science and that forces and energies exist outside our understanding. Mitchell is brilliant at confounding expectations about what a ‘mainstream’ novel should contain. I mean, one of Ghostwritten’s protagonists was an ancient incorporeal being. How cool is that? The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet isn’t as brazen as that, but it’s possibly cleverer, managing that fine trick of managing to make a story feel both intimate and epic. This is my favourite way to construct a story and Mitchell does it with aplomb.

Another element of Mitchell’s writing I love is his willingness to vary tone and master a variety of styles. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet had some seriously moving moments, some moments or pure tension and yes, some laugh out loud comedy. Again, he does this in a less obvious way than the fractured narratives of Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, but this marvellously successful attempt at being a literary jack-of-all-trades is probably my favourite thing about Mitchell’s writing. There’s a description of Nagasaki towards the end that slips into poetry, but it didn’t feel jarring or pretentious, it just felt right, perfectly pitched.

Jacob de Zoet is a protagonist that it’s hard not to root for and he’s surrounded by an interesting and likeable cast. My favourite was the plain spoken Chief van Cleef of the Dutch trading mission; I enjoyed his lack of pretention and straight talking, with the Japanese characters also being well developed. The sinister Abbot Enomoto is a great character and Orito is an excellent love interest.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet moved, amused and entertained me more than I was perhaps expecting. For some reason I’d had it in my head that Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten were flukes; I’m happy to be proven wrong. I think I have another author whose back catalogue I’m going to obsessively consume! Hooray!thousandautumns-horizontal

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