The Bone Clocks
By David Mitchell. Knopf Canada, 632 pp, hardcover
One of the most dizzying things about a new novel from British writer David Mitchell is that you never know what to expect. More significantly, that feeling of uncertainty lingers even as you’re reading, up to the very last page.
Mitchell is something of a literary iconoclast, blurring and shattering genre boundaries and conventions with such aplomb, one might almost think he is unaware that he is doing so, save for the fact that his command of those very genres is so strong.
With his new novel The Bone Clocks, Mitchell follows the life of the enigmatic Holly Sykes. Readers first meet her as a 15-year-old runaway, eventually drawn home when her younger brother disappears. Sykes then becomes a secondary character for the bulk of the novel, touching the lives of a sociopathic university student, an aging writer, and others, before returning to the role of central character in the novel’s final section, set in a near-future dystopia.
Sykes is a brilliant fictional creation, richly rounded and developed, tangible even when she is at her most inscrutable.
That grounding in character is essential in a novel that also includes an epic, centuries-long battle between good and evil, two groups of immortals vying for supremacy. Sykes is drawn into their battle as a child, in a manner that is only gradually revealed. The imaginary friend of her childhood, the voices she used to hear until Dr. Marinus (who, yes, figured in Mitchell’s last novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) “cured” her, the lost time she experienced after she ran away from home: her significance, and the significance of her experiences, could well tip the scales between the Horologists (who are immortal by nature, reborn into new bodies after their deaths) and the Anchorites (who stop the aging process by ceremonially decanting and drinking the essence of special children).
Mitchell finds the perfect equilibrium between fantasy and realism, never flinching from either, in the process creating a literary novel that can be read as fantasy, or a fantasy that can be read for its literary values. Either way you look at it, The Bone Clocks is an immersive, compelling read from one of our most significant contemporary writers.
David Mitchell will read from The Bone Clocks at a special Vancouver Writers Fest event at St. Andrew’s–Wesley United Church on September 27. See the fest's website for details.