New This Week: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

I wonder if David Mitchell likes the fact that when he publishes a novel, it’s an event. I mean, suddenly everyone is talking about his work. Everyone is either full-on loving it or not getting it at all. If I think about the rush for advance copies last June, when Random House gave away a few hundred copies of his new novel, The Bone Clocks, it’s probably a good indicator of the pandemonium that’s just ensuing now that the book has hit the shelves.

The Bone Clocks is a book about family, seen mostly through the life-lens of a girl named Holly Sykes. Holly is a force of nature. In its most basic terms, this novel is the story of her life, told in six big sections — each a novella on its own. Holly narrates the first and the sixth, and the others are handled by people whose lives intersect hers at critical moments for both her and the novel’s development.

Mitchell, true to form, has folded in the normalcy of Holly’s life — and really, the normalcy of all his characters’ lives, even if for them normal isn’t what it is for us. Conquests of success, sex, an advantage, an explanation, true love. His characters are after all sorts of things, but it’s Holly’s own search for meaning that drives this book — and her life — forward. In that sense, she’s everywoman. We learn about her escapades as a teenager, the disappearance of her brother, her experiences with mystical beings she doesn’t understand, and the success and notoriety she earns after she writes a book about the voices she hears in her head. And about those voices: They provide the entrée into the novel’s deeper layer, about an occult war between mystical beings who hold the keys to immortality.

As he did with Cloud Atlas, Mitchell assembles his story in multiple layers. There’s what we read about, what’s going on day to day — and then there’s what really going on, the stuff of year to year and lifetime to lifetime. This layer illuminates a new set of characters and provides more information about what motivates the characters we already know. The present and the future are bound by the time between them. In the same way, there’s what we know and what we don’t — and something binds them, too.

The Bone Clocks is about all of that. It’s about the here and now, and it leaps forward to decades from now, when the world has morphed into something we recognize yet is also very different. In that sense, it’s also a post-apocalyptic novel. On top of all this, but unmentioned in the novel itself, is the fact that characters from other Mitchell novels make appearances. Sometimes cameos, sometimes major roles, these appearances are the threads that begin to bind his works together into a larger whole. Much as Mitchell’s novellas comprise his novels, it’s starting to look like his novels comprise something much larger.

I could go on and on about the terrain The Bone Clocks covers, but you should discover it on your own. No spoilers here. As I was, you’ll be mesmerized by Mitchell’s sentences. He knows how to create one and how to use one. Reading him is like watching a master craftsman build furniture. Whatever its form, he gives it his all — and his all is hypnotic.

The Bone Clocks is a wondrous, wonderful work. A testament, after all of its astounding literary pyrotechnics, to the simplest thing: family. For Holly Sykes, family is everything. This book is about its power, its pull, its push, its intoxications, and the nameless magic that inspires us to shape our lives the ways we shape them. ◊

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