If the novelist David Mitchell was not already best known for his epic 2004 work Cloud Atlas, defying description and ignoring the conventions of genre as it picked up awards and nominations in both literary and science fiction shortlists, the film adaptation of that work solidified that reputation. His two subsequent novels Black Swan Green (2006) and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) were both more conventional, respectable, even: a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale and a historical drama, but ever the unpredictable contrarian, his latest heavyweight tome may revisit some aspects of his earlier works but is his first overt venture into magical realism.
It is June 1984, the sense of time and place as thick as the summer heat in working class Gravesend, Thatcher’s Britain and the miners’ strike. Holly Sykes is a singular girl; so she learned from the childhood visitations of the apparition who called herself Miss Constantin. She loves with all her heart, her slightly younger brother, her music, her boyfriend, in the way that only a teenager can before life has disabused them of the notion of a happy ending.
The realisation of the fragility of trust comes swiftly, but Holly is unbowed and aided by a couple of kindly revolutionaries, an acquaintance from school whom she had previously dismissed, his depth now a surprise to her, and a strange woman whom she meets on the canal towpath who offers her green tea in return for asylum, she is determined to turn that betrayal into the first step of her adventure.
Unlike Cloud Atlas, the transitions between the different sections of the novel are not abrupt, each neatly rounded off, and in part two the reader is ready to meet a very different person, Hugo Lamb, reading politics at Cambridge in December 1991, womaniser, thief, liar, a man who, like runaway Holly, uses an assumed identity to achieve his ends though his goal is profit rather than liberation.
Though his actions with a homeless man demonstrate he is not entirely without heart, he preys on those around him who would mistakenly call him a friend, exploiting them, stealing from them directly to fund his proposed lifestyle. A philandering philatelic fraudster who is tangentially acquainted with Holly’s lost teenage love, Hugo also has experiences of Immaculeé Constantin which involve lost time.
Against expectation, Hugo’s story links to Holly, now tending bar in the Swiss ski resort he flees to rather than face the festive season in the bosom of his family, nor is this Mitchell’s only preparation to deflect criticism: Hugo’s friend Richard Cheeseman is an aspiring novelist. “No one’s ever tried anything like it,” he explains of his novel within a novel within a novel; are the harsh responses of his varsity friends representative of the spectrum of reactions to Cloud Atlas?
The third section returns more directly to Holly, her journalist husband Ed and their young daughter Aoife in 2004 before moving to the anguish of Crispin Hershey, former literary light now dimmed in 2015 in the wake of a scathing review courtesy of one Richard Cheeseman Esquire, who has horrified his agent with his revelation that he wishes to write a fantasy novel. Again, Mitchell pre-empts criticisms which might be levelled at his own book of “the fantasy sub-plot clashing with the state-of-the-world pretensions,“ while an interviewer challenges Hershey that “You dub novels about novelists incestuous,” though it is Mitchell who has created a writer character.
Like Hugo, Crispin is linked to Holly, forever in her shadow at book festivals the world over, he trying to recapture the acclaim of his youth in contrast to the effortless connection Holly has with her audience, never having sought fame, just living her life and telling her story. While Crispin never got over his relationship with his father, failed to reconcile the expectation and disappointment, young Aoife finds comfort in watching old interviews on You Tube, the only way she can spend time with her dad.
Having expressed his awareness of the possible criticism of moving into a fantasy direction, Mitchell goes the whole hog in the fifth section with transversing, suasion and other acts of Deep Stream psychosoterica as the Horologists prepare to assault the stronghold of the enemy, the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar, the shifting architecture and cold grey stone imbued with trepidation reminding of Mark Z Danielewski’s eponymous House of Leaves, a most oppressive and inescapable of shifting spaces.
The idea of the soul, even reincarnation, is a respectable one for a literary novelist, a karmic debt repaid over many lifetimes as the soul ascends to enlightenment; The Bone Clocks are instead counting down the years until a confrontation between two opposing forces of near immortal beings who manipulate and encourage accommodating humans to their own ends, and Mitchell’s bravado in inviting those who would look down in him demonstrates his confidence, and for that reason it is disappointing that the conflict which underpins the narrative is in fact the weakest strand of the novel, particularly in its resolution, though the final section of the novel brings a more satisfying emotional closure.
Despite this, while the tapestry which Mitchell weaves may seem cumbersome as it wraps around itself, suffocating the wearer, it is in his awareness of place and his characters where the mastery of detail emerges from the intricate and overcomplicated pattern: the story of the being known as Marinus takes in Aboriginal Australia and pre-revolution Russia, a travelogue as entrancing and captivating as Amy Tan’s recreation of bygone China in The Valley of Amazement, and Crispin Hershey starts as an anecdote, becomes a caricature, then becomes a human, flawed, hopeful, caring, regretful who a visiting lecturer on creative writing dispenses good advice to his post graduate students and his readers: “Love may be blind, but cohabitation comes with all the latest X-ray gizmos.”