David Mitchell’s new book The Bone Clocks is inventive and witty and just so good, you find yourself smiling with the pleasure of reading it. I felt refreshed and rejuvenated, and excited by the book, which has just the right amount of speculative oddness, a flash of sci-fi, a brilliance of fantasy, casually and skillfully embedded in a story set in our everyday world.
It begins on a drowsy summer’s day in 1984, when teenage runaway Holly Sykes encounters a strange woman who offers a small kindness in exchange for ‘asylum’. Holly is maddening, naive, self-righteous and bolshy in equal reckless measure. When she was a young child she used to hear voices and had an invisible friend. Decades will pass before Holly understands exactly what sort of asylum the woman was seeking … we follow the twists and turns of Holly’s life to her old age on Ireland’s Atlantic coast as Europe’s oil supply dries up – a life not so far out of the ordinary, yet punctuated by flashes of precognition, visits from people who emerge from thin air and brief lapses in the laws of reality.
I really liked how the narrative was structured – often told by people other than Holly, we get glimpses of her through their eyes, and discover what has happened to her in the intervening months, sometimes years, almost incidentally. Holly Sykes – daughter, sister, mother, guardian – is an unwitting player in a murderous feud played out in the shadows and margins of our world, and may prove to be its decisive weapon. The mysterious otherworldly time-bending of the atemporals imbues Holly’s (our?) ordinary life with a sense of mystery and wonder, with a sense of its precious fragility, while the very down-to-earthness of Mitchell’s descriptions of the everyday world of the UK in the first century of the new millennium somehow anchors the fantasy elements and makes them just another thing about the world – believable, in other words. The vicissitudes and small pleasures the end of Oil brings simply underscore the extreme realities we all have to live with and take account of.
Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2014, this could so easily have won. The blurb says its “at once the kaleidoscopic story of an unusual woman’s life, a metaphysical thriller and a profound meditation on mortality and survival.” The Bone Clocks is all those, but written so deftly, with a great sense of engagement and humour, it isn’t weighed down by its Big Themes, it is ‘just’ a good story, entertaining, provoking, breath-catching: you want to find out what happens next.
Also, great cover: