Every once in a while, a book lives up to the hype. This is one of those resplendent few.
I'll admit I was skeptical. I'd heard about The Bone Clocks on NPR, seen David Mitchell's face on the front of BookPage—everywhere I turned this month, people were hailing this book like charismatic worshipers with a box full of snakes. At a bookstore on our trip, a placard informed me that The Bone Clocks held the place of honor as the current #1 fiction bestseller. Oh, and the placard was sorry, but every last copy was sold out.
At some point in the face of all this adulation, a cynical person starts to wonder if it all isn't a bit much. How many books are that good, really?
The answer: not many, but this one is.
The story begins with the endearing and stubborn Holly Sykes, who in 1984 is a fifteen-year-old half-Irish girl who hears voices, experiences occasional precognitions, and has a bone to pick with her parents. From there, it goes so far afield in time, geography, and sheer possibility that to give any more plot details would be to rob you of the joy of discovering it for yourself.
A note about the structure, however, wouldn't be remiss. Mitchell has divided the book into discrete sections, introducing new characters and sometimes with just a few words dispatching old ones. Thus the start of each feels a bit disorienting until we acclimate to the new paradigms Mitchell has created to layer on top of the old. Reading The Bone Clocks feels a little like taking a walk around a spiral path—it's a journey through ever-widening concentric circles, in which familiar elements repeat themselves but coalesce each time with more clarity and depth than the time before.
My local library cataloged The Bone Clocks in the science fiction section, which I suppose is apt in a way, but the snob in me (apparently not entirely wiped out by the Summer of Sci-Fi) would classify it as literary fiction first. It's not that there aren't bits that don't fit what we would call reality, but as science fiction often puts people in mind of spaceships and extraterrestrials, I'd just as soon dispense with the label. Instead I like to think of The Bone Clocks as reality-plus.
This is my first time reading Mitchell's work, which sad fact I plan to rectify as quickly as possible. Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten are top priorities on my shelf now. It's hard to believe I haven't come across him before; his style reminds me so much of my longtime favorite Margaret Atwood's, with its elegant prose and urgent message. Until Mitchell, I thought Atwood was unique in her penchant for simultaneously delivering crushing warnings about the fate of humanity and insisting on a faint, flickering wisp of hope. Now, mercifully, I know better.