David Mitchell, 2014
The first David Mitchell novel I read was Cloud Atlas. I loved it. Friends who had read it thought it pretentious, or a struggle, but I loved it unreservedly. The sheer breadth of it, with interwoven stories spanning the early 18th Century to some time in the far distant future, was like nothing I had read before. I loved the film too, structurally different from the book, but just as compelling.
Last summer I read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. This was must more conventional than Cloud Atlas, set in one place and time, with most of the story playing out on Dejima Island in Nagasaki in the late 18th Century. Again, Mitchell’s richly evocative prose, and his thick description of Japanese and Dutch trader life at the time, was a delight to read. It’s depth of description was akin to Moby Dick and the story itself was reminiscent of Shogun and The English Passengers.
So, when I was browsing the shelves of WHSmith Books at Birmingham Airport recently, and spotted The Bone Clocks, I couldn’t resist buying it.
Like, Cloud Atlas, this is a story set across time and space. The story moves from a teenager in Gravesend, London in 1984, to a Cambridge University student in 1991, a war correspondent in Iraq in 2004, all the way through to a dystopian West Cork in 2045. One woman is the thread connecting all these stories. She features prominently in some, but plays only a minor, but pivotal, role in others. But this woman is also linked to something deeper and darker, to beings who defy mortality, who have lived, in some cases, for thousands of years. Their lives and battles take place on a sphere invisible to us mortals.
This immortality element of the story was not entirely to my liking. It was all a bit Dan Brown meets Interview with a Vampire. However, the stories told around these supernatural events were intriguing. I liked how each mortal character was written, even if I didn’t always like the characters themselves. There was one character whose purpose remains a mystery. Soleil Moore briefly popped up in three separate sections of the book, appearing with her books of poetry and quickly disappearing again, but her role or purpose were never made clear. Mitchell likes to use the same characters in different novels, a bit like Alice Walker, a minor character in one novel reappearing as a major character or the protagonist in another. Perhaps Soleil Moore’s purpose will become clear in a future novel.
Inevitably, it was the novel’s final section, set in 2045, on Sheep’s Head peninsula in West Cork, that remained with me. This anarchic dystopian future contained all the familiar tropes of the genre – the repurposing of disturbingly recognizable technology, the ravaging and merciless gangs, the loss of electricity and other services. What was interesting about this version was that it was set in my own country, making use of my cultural signposts, in a part of the world with which I have some familiarity.
The supernatural ending tied things up just a little too neatly for my liking and, following the MaddAddam-style dystopia, the ending was a little too similar (though not nearly as dark) as the final scene in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Mitchell’s writing is addictive. Through evocative prose, he carries the reader across space and time, and by the final page, despite some misgivings, I was a sobbing wreck. I could have done without the telepathic, superpowered immortals. They’re just not my sort of thing.