Friday, 9 September 2016

Bookclub Discussion: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

After a summer break, Triskele Bookclub is back!
September book under discussion is The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. If you've read the book, please comment with your thoughts - if not, we may well tempt you!

About the author: Born in 1969, David Mitchell grew up in Worcestershire. After graduating from Kent University, he taught English in Japan, where he wrote his first novel, GHOSTWRITTEN in 1999. His second novel, NUMBER9DREAM, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. His third novel, CLOUD ATLAS, was shortlisted for six awards including the Man Booker Prize, and adapted for film in 2012. It was followed by BLACK SWAN GREEN, shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year Award, and THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET, which was a No. 1 Sunday Times bestseller and finally, THE BONE CLOCKS. All three were longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

The Bone Clocks
One drowsy summer's day in 1984, teenage runaway Holly Sykes encounters a strange woman who offers a small kindness in exchange for 'asylum'. Decades will pass before Holly understands exactly what sort of asylum the woman was seeking . .T

The Bone Clocks follows the twists and turns of Holly's life from a scarred adolescence in Gravesend to 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. For Holly Sykes - daughter, sister, mother, guardian - is also 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.

Metaphysical thriller, meditation on mortality and chronicle of our self-devouring times, this kaleidoscopic novel crackles with the invention and wit that have made David Mitchell one of the most celebrated writers of his generation. Here is fiction at its most spellbinding and memorable best.

Okay, ladies, time for your feedback.

This is a book that takes time to settle in your brain and demands further contemplation. What were your initial thoughts when you came to the end?

JJ: Epic, clever, over-arching, complex and most of all, a Mitchell-fan goody-bag. Some sections worked better than others but each element made for a satisfying whole.
GEH: In a word - shaken. I found the final section of the book moving in a lot of different ways. For a fantasy novel, the author has a real talent for making every word he writes feel utterly believable.
CT: As usual with a David Mitchell book, you feel as if your brain has been delicately turned inside out and your perceptions flipped upside down.

And after ‘thinking time’ – what legacy did it leave?

JJ: The lasting impression is of another well-woven episode in Mitchell’s ‘über-novel’, showcasing his brilliance at voice, spreadsheet mind and sly sense of humour.
GEH: I think the sense of doom and loss I felt at the end of the book lingered. In particular the connection with the storyline and how it felt that the author had looked into his version of the future with startling clarity .... it really made me analyse the book in a way that I don't often do. Also, as a writer, I find increasingly I have to admire Mitchell's style which appears totally effortless - but obviously is not!
CT: Fantasies and dystopias often work best when firmly grounded in recognisable reality. Mitchell creates worlds so believable that we trust him when he pushes us over the edge into the incredible.

The POV and time-frame winds back and forth in a unique style, almost like a collection of short stories that form one whole at the end - what did you learn from the way the author handled structure here?

JJ: Yes, like a series of novellas but with a stronger ‘red-line’ than Cloud Atlas. Each episode has its own voice and strengths with the undertone of the fantasy element. Oddly, when the fantasy came to the fore, I engaged less. As for structure, this connects and combines superbly, distracting the reader from the links by dint of individual, engaging stories.
GEH: I really enjoy these type of multi-layered complex stories, where, because you become engaged with each character, you're so eager to see how the individual plots will merge at the end. There's a talent to character-led, rather than plot-led narratives, which I very much admire. I think we have a real genius at work here. So, in a word - respect!
CT: It’s a classic David Mitchell structure, isn’t it? He weaves a strong rope from different strands, each of which can be seen throughout the narrative, even while one takes the lead. I think the trick in his style of writing is to keep each thread distinct, so they don’t merge, one with the other, and yet to have enough points of contact between them that they bind together. A difficult balancing act!

Was there one image that stuck with you long after reading the book?

JJ: Yes, one shocking moment in the first section, but can’t do spoilers.
GEH: The whole of the final section and the future implications for man-kind. Sounds pretty serious for a fantasy-type novel but it really did stay with me.
CT: Without giving too much away, the brutal simplicity of Mitchell’s heading-for-disaster vision of the future shook me - all too probable.

Why did Holly Sykes work as the main protagonist?

 JJ: Loyalty is engendered from the start, then we see her through other, jaded eyes, such as Hershey’s and our sympathy remains.
GEH: It is the age old story of a journey, isn't it? Find the right character to accompany the reader on that journey and anything is believable. It was the believability factor that worked for me, the introduction to Holly in a run-of-the-mill lifestyle and landscape which then transformed in front of our eyes.
CT: I think for me it was the process of seeing Holly move from teenager into late age. The fact that it is done as a series of vignettes mean that each stage of her life is distinct and we notice the changes, the way we do with a friend whom we only see at long intervals. It felt as if I had lived her life at high speed. At the end, I did’t want to lose her.

We have a multi-narrated novel here. Which voice stood out most to you and why?
JJ: Probably Hugo Lamb. Again, don’t want to spoil, but the rarefied air of privilege and cynical manipulation of others is repulsively fascinating. Crispin Hershey is a little ‘meta’ referential but fabulous fun.
GEH: I was going to say Hugo too! But I keep going back to Holly - and her 'normality' in the face of adversity. So, I'll say Holly Sykes.
CT I fell in love with that opening voice of young Holly. But I found the voice of Holly’s husband, carrying the unseen scars being a war correspondent, deeply affecting. For me, possibly the character I most empathised with.

This is far from a love story – and yet we meet three men who all fall in love with the same character. How did the emotional layers of the story work for you?

JJ: The love story for me was not so much the character interaction, but human beings as a species. In a fundamental sense, this is about how we deal with the duality of immediate gratification and self(ish)-propagation versus long-term care of our planet and people. That was the element that hit me hardest.
GEH: I think the message here was much deeper than that of a traditional love story. There was emotion, true, but in a tortured and brutal manner - not that much in the way of romance and beating hearts. There were more tears than laughter for sure. And I think the introduction of a love interest was a very clever way in making the reader connect with the characters and examine the bigger picture.
CT: I fall back on the gradual maturing of Holly Sykes as being the emotional thread that pulled me through the story.

One quote from the character of Crispin Hershey which really connected with me and felt as if Mitchell were reviewing the novel from within: ‘[the author] is so bent on avoiding cliche that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower.’ What do you think he meant by this?

JJ: I think Amis Senior is chuckling in his grave and Amis Junior is grinding his teeth.
GEH: I did think a lot of Hershey's dialogue sounded like the bitchier side of the author coming through - and I loved that. I felt it was a two-fingered salute to some of the more literary writers who look down on genre fiction - and are so uptight with their own intensity they're almost caricatures. I'm too polite to name names, of course!
CT: Yes, surely a dig at those who forget that the most powerful of concepts can be expressed, beautifully, in the simplest of language.

It’s hard to name a similar novel to THE BONE CLOCKS, but if forced to try which author or book comes close?

JJ: Magical realism such as Louis de Bernières or Gabriel Garcia Marquez with an oddly British dose of Margaret Atwood and Scarlett Thomas.
GEH: I would have to go with Margaret Atwood too. The Handmaid's Tale had this sense of fore-shadowing an idea of a macabre future. Maybe also elements of some of Sarah Waters's novels too, more for style than content. And also, some of the atmospheric ideas reminded me of Stephen King's Dark Tower series. 
CT: In terms of brilliant conceptualisation of an alternative reality – probably Philip K Dick. In terms of scope combined with richness of prose, perhaps Michel Faber or Kate Atkinson.

For fans of David Mitchell who haven’t read this book yet – why should they?

JJ: For the voices and characters and the concept. Fans will whoop and go geeky on all the connections, but for a first-timer, this is an extraordinary adventure with an atmosphere of its own.
GEH: I would urge anyone who has never opened a David Mitchell novel to make this the very next book on their reading list. For fans of his, I doubt they need encouragement from me, because this is Mr Mitchell at his very best!
CT: To be led by the hand through a series of fascinating rooms, walking in the shoes of fresh sequence of richly complex characters - what else does one read David Mitchell for?


  1. Your discussion really makes me want to read this!

  2. Really great analysis and discussion. This is now officially my winter read and am looking forward to sitting by the fire amd getting into this!

  3. Really great analysis and discussion. This is now officially my winter read and am looking forward to sitting by the fire amd getting into this!