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Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Random House, 640 pages, $30

Ha, ha, ha. David Mitchell crafted his own tongue-in-cheek review of “The Bone Clocks” and placed it smack dab in the book: “The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions.”

Mitchell has once again created a turmoil of styles, voices, and tones, similar to, but certainly not exactly like, “The Cloud Atlas.” From the viewpoint of a cheeky teenage girl in England in 1984 to that girl as an elderly woman in a dystopian Ireland in 2043, Mitchell tells everything from the small to the cosmically large stories of Holly Sykes, that girl/woman. While not every story in the book is primarily about Holly, she appears in each section. She goes from awkward teenage sentiments:

I only cry a bit, and it’s shocked crying, not boo-hoo crying, and when I’m done I go to the mirror. My eyes’re a bit puffy, but a bit of eyeliner soon sorts that out … Dab of lippy, bit of blushers … Sorted.

to the thoughts of a 74-year-old survivor:

When I first moved to Dooneen Cottage — a quarter of a century ago — I couldn’t have plucked a hen if my life depended on it. Now I can stun, decapitate, and gut one as casually as Mam used to make a beef and Guinness stew.

Holly has several parts to play in the war between the Anchorites of the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Monastery of Sidelhorn Pass (or just “Anchorites,” if you please) and the Horologists (if they have a lengthier name, I don’t remember it). They are immortals (or close enough), but they can die for real (“die-die”).

“The Bone Clocks” includes a narrative, as realistic as can be, by a journalist about life and death in a Middle East war zone. It also includes the whinging of a deluded, narcissistic author (responsible for the quote in the first paragraph). How about a rebellious 15-year-old girl who runs away from home? Most of the stories run swiftly along, most excellently combining Mitchell’s quirky turns of phrase and the voice of the character. However, it all comes to a thunking halt when the story turns to the Anchorites v. the Horologists about three-fourths through the book.

How well does Mitchell succeed in his attempt to mix some very serious and real issues facing our world with a far-out battle of immortals? It’s fascinating and awkward at the same time. Fascinating because Mitchell’s creativity is way off the charts. Awkward because the pace goes from zipping along to suddenly stuttering because of the vocabulary, back story, and suddenly larger cast of characters needed to explain this supernatural competition.

Mitchell ends with a story about the aftermath. Not the aftermath of the battle, but the aftermath of the human negligence of our world. Why didn't the immortals intercede? In general, they didn’t seem to have a major impact on our world. The Anchorites demanded scant human sacrifices and the Horologists didn’t, but no one on either side was a world leader or author of economic policy. Maybe their actions were like butterfly wings, flapping and rippling into hurricanes.

There needs to be applause for Mitchell’s writing (with not a cliché in sight), his willingness to be a different sort of storyteller, his intelligence in presenting diverse topics, and his ability to be absolutely riveting. He is an extraordinary literary acrobat.

P.S. Yes, there are murders. And the whole book is full of mysterious goings-on.

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