The Bone Clocks is David Mitchell’s 6th novel since he first burst upon the literary scene, as they say, with Ghostwritten in 1999. And for a writer who has become something of a byword for cross-referential interlinky metastories, his latest book is the most cross-referential and interlinky yet, not just unto itself (like Ghostwritten) but with all his previous works. In fact, with Bone Clocks, you have to read everything that David Mitchell has ever written like it’s one big, interlinked, multistranded, pan-dimensional, Mother of all Meta-narratives. It’s enough to make your brain hurt.
But before we get to the meta-level, the bare bones of the plot: The story begins in 1984, with fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes in an almighty strop. Having discovered that her boyfriend is having it off with her best mate Holly clutches her broken heart, wounded pride and a soon-to-be-frisbeed-into-a-lake favourite record to her chest and leaves home. Stomping through the Kent countryside, she has a strange encounter with an elderly lady called Esther Little and then hitches a lift from two friendly activists who, shortly thereafter, are brutally murdered by an evil time-travelling carnivore. One of them is zombified back into action in the nick of time by the aforementioned Esther who saves Holly’s life, tinkers with her memory, and (bear with me) takes up clandestine residence in Holly’s brain.
This is not the first time “weird shit” (as she calls it) has happened to Holly. As a child she heard voices, and had strange visitations from a ghost? imaginary friend? called Miss Constantin. Holly is cured of her childhood psychic tendencies by a Chinese doctor called Dr Marinus, who returns later, in a different body, to save her (and Esther) in the weird shitstorm which characterizes the rest of the book.
In the second section (1991), we meet a posh, amoral Cambridge undergrad called Hugo Lamb. He encounters the same beguilingly beautiful lady who had appeared 15 years earlier on Holly Sykes’s bed. She – to cut a long story short – recruits Hugo to the Dark Side, to join a team of (bear with me again) atemporal beings who feed on the souls of children. Yes, that’s right. Oh, but not before he has a brief but passionate encounter with the Holly in the Alps.
By 2004, Holly is married to her childhood friend Ed, a war-reporter, who spends most of his time dodging bullets in Iraq. Ed is a nice guy, but the strain of being a bit of a conflict junkie is beginning to tell on his relationship with Holly, and with their six-year-old daughter Aoife.
The next section takes place in 2015, though in tone and character, it loops us right back to the Timothy Cavendish section of Cloud Atlas. Neurotic authors, psychopathic publishers, and more than a touch of Martin Amis about both. The aging, bitter novelist, Crispin Hershey befriends Holly, who by this time has written a memoir about her early childhood psychic encounters, and has become something of a celebrity.
And then, 10 years later, the psychic shitstorm hits the fan, bigtime.
We learn that:
- alongside ordinary mortals are atemporal beings who selectively inhabit people. They do this by transmigrating in to the bodies of recently deceased children (as Xi Lo does with Holly’s little brother Jacko) or by taking up residence in a willing host (as Esther does with Holly). Or, if they are Anchorites – a.k.a. The Shaded Way, acolytes of the Blind Cathar of the Chapel of the Dusk, in short: the baddies – they prevent the aging of their bodies by drinking ‘the decanted souls of their child-victims.
- Some, or all, Atemporals are ‘psychoterics,’ who can subcommunicate by subchatting with each other in subdialogue (a.k.a. ‘italics’). A few ordinary folks (like Holly) also have this gift.
- The good Atemporals are Horologists, a secret society dedicated to “assassinate carnivorous Atemporals – like the Anchorites – who consume the psychovoltaic souls of innocent people in order to fuel their own immortality.”
- Holly has a key part to play in their plan to “psychodemolish the Chapel of the Dusk”
The last section sees Holly, aged 73, in a world torn to shreds not by psychodemolition but by climate change and sheer human shortsightedness and greed. It’s a chilling, and all-too-believable future that awaits us, when the oil has run out, rations are back, governments are collapsing, travel has become impossible, and the country is ravaged by looters and vigilantes.
But what’s it all about? Environmental apocalypse? The nature of consciousness? Or just a very post-modern spin on E.M. Forster’s ‘everything’s connected’ schtick? At its most basic, The Bone Clocks is just a hugely enjoyable romp with the notion that of the wierdest of shit coexists with the mundanest of lives – owing more to Doctor Who than David Lynch.
But reading his whole oevre as one overarching project, I think Mitchell is exploring the idea of the creative process of writing, and of reading. A writer inhabits his or her characters much as an atemporal ingresses into their souls – and Mitchell is a master of the art. He is brilliant at historical detail and can really, as one critic pithily put it, “do the voices.” And the telepathic communication between the psychoterics of The Bone Clocks is nothing more (or less) than a metaphor for reading, as we ‘hear’ characters speak, evesdropping silently on their thought processes, or those of the author, across time and space, without anyone’s lips moving at all.
Literature as sorcery, some kind of magic – maybe not one of the Dark Arts, but a gift perhaps, a blessing and an enchantment.
 Yes, the same Marinus who plays a pivotal role in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010). At that point, he’s on his 35th body. In 1872, when he first meets Esther Little, he’s onto his 36th – a mere stripling compared to Esther whose soul is around seven thousand years old. “When she scansioned me, I felt like a third-rate poet showing his doggerel to Shakespeare,” he explains. “When I scansioned her, I felt like a minnow tipped from a jar into a deep inland sea.”
 Cousin of Jason Taylor, stammering protagonist of Black Swan Green (2006) in which Hugo also makes a passing appearance.
 And just so’s you know, his brother, Denholm Cavendish, is the owner of company luckless financier Neal Brose (who also appears as a teenager in Black Swan Green) works for in the Hong Kong section of Cloud Atlas. Keeping up?
 Who turns out to be the novelist who wrote ‘The Voorman Problem’, a story from number9dream, Mitchell’s second novel, published in 2001.