H almost never buys me books. He’ll point out reviews from the New York Times, but he knows my tastes are too unpredictable to invest in without consultation.
And so it came as a surprise a decade ago to arrive home after work one day and find a copy of a new novel on my desk, one that I’d barely even heard of: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Unusually for me, I didn’t check out the reviews on Amazon or look up Mitchell in Wikipedia. I just cracked it open and began to read. The story of danger and mystery in the South Seas brought back memories of early Melville and Conrad novels, but with enough of a modern twist that I kept reading without wondering too much where the book was taking me.
When the first chapter broke off suddenly in mid-sentence and turning the page took me literally half a world and half a century away from where I’d just been, I was surprised, puzzled, and probably a little annoyed—that last reaction a testament, perhaps, to Mitchell’s story-telling prowess. But just as quickly I became intrigued by this new story of a cunning, vaguely disreputable young man in 1930s Belgium, and read on apace.
In the end, I loved Cloud Atlas like almost no other contemporary novel I’d recently read. I loved it so much that I was excited by the prospect of seeing it translated to the screen, even though I remained suspicious of the Wachowskis after watching the way they had squandered the promise of The Matrix in its sequels. But the conceits of Cloud Atlas were so brilliant that I loved the film nearly as well as the book, and indeed, re-read the novel shortly afterwards, enjoying it even more the second time around. The experience also acted as a tickler to my dormant resolution to read more of Mitchell’s work.
And so it was when the notices for The Bone Clocks began to appear that I decided to take the plunge once again, especially as the reviews were claiming this book would “meet and match the legacy of Cloud Atlas.”
Such assertions verge on oversell, I think. If anything, The Bone Clocks is more like Cloud Atlas for Beginners. The new novel has the same schema of half a dozen interconnected if temporally distanced stories, although the progression here is strictly linear, from the 1980s to the 2040s, and without Cloud Atlas‘s daring there-and-back-again recursive structure. And unlike Cloud Atlas, where the characters might conceivably be thought of as avatars of one another (as the Wachowskis suggest through their casting throughout the tales), there is continuity of character, particularly that of Holly Sykes, the chief protagonist of the first chapter, throughout The Bone Clocks.
The new novel takes Holly’s life, from a rebellious London teenager through an expiring grandmother in a post-apocalyptic Irish community, as the lens through which the story of a vast war is conducted. The war is waged by the Horologists, humans who, for reasons unknown to them, live forever through a process of re-incarnation, against the Anchorites, people who ward off death by violently seizing and overtaking the bodies of ordinary mortals. Both sides suffer the depredations of the bone clocks—this mortal coil of our bodies—but the Horologists aim to stop the wanton murder of innocents that powers the Anchorites’ ability to cheat death.
None of this is clear in the first half of the novel, where the story moves, like Cloud Atlas, from surprise to surprise, always powered by Mitchell’s imaginative and sympathetic ability to create fascinating characters whose true qualities are slowly but convincingly revealed as their stories unfold. Mitchell’s great success lies also in his ability to take the conventions of genre fiction—mystery and science fiction—and blend them into the texture of contemporary realism. The Eastender, the Cambridge undergraduate, the Middle East war correspondent’s stories sit comfortably and not terribly strangely within flickers and hints of something altogether supernatural.
As the stories begin to tip into the future, in the fourth chapter (set in 2015) and beyond, Mitchell is forced to confront the question posed by Molly Bloom early in Ulysses: what’s is meant to mean? And this is where he runs into a bit of trouble for a while. As he brings the war between the Horologists and the Anchorites out of the shadows, especially in the book’s fifth part where the truth is finally revealed to Holly, his storytelling gets bogged down in explanation, and the balance tilts to exposition to the detriment of drama. At the end of the fifth chapter, the mystical war erupts in full-blown, fantastic battles waged in another dimension beyond the sight of mere mortals (except Holly) and Mitchell recovers his pacing and the excitement of earlier sections even as he discards any trace of realism.
The book’s final section is set thirty years in the future in the wake of the collapse of our familiar world order. Climate change has devastated the planet, wrecking a society that no one suspected was as fragile as it turned out to be; the parallels to the central chapter of Cloud Atlas (“Sloosha’s Crossing’ An’ Ev’rthin’ After”) are deep and striking, right down to the appearance of a ship that offers, against all odds, salvation and the hope of hope to a select few of the survivors.
Mitchell regains his footing in this final section, telling the tale of destruction and savagery and the survival of human kindness in their midst eloquently and provokingly, despite the deus-ex-machina quality of the final pages. The parallels between the rapacity of oil and resource consumerism and the Anchorites’ predatory behaviors remain implicit but are hardly invisible. The Horologists may be caught up in cycles they do not fully comprehend, but their charity will ultimately prove the only way forward, no matter what conditions humanity endures.
The Apocalypse probably shouldn’t be this much fun. Dystopia usually isn’t a place where hope can flourish. But David Mitchell’s humanism and intelligence allow us to inhabit both worlds, much as Holly Sykes can, and I’m grateful for that vision.