The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell

The sea-breeze and bike-breeze slip up my sleeves and stroke my front like a pervy Mr Tickle. Sweat’s glueing Brubeck’s T-shirt to his back. I refuse to think ’bout Vinny’s sweat, and Stella’s … My heart cracks again and goo dribbles out and stings, like Dettol on a graze. I grip the bike rack with both hands, but then the track gets rucklier so I steady myself by hooking one thumb through a belt-loop on Brubeck’s jeans. Probably Brubeck’s getting a hard-on from this, but that’s his problem, not mine.

I’ve got to be honest David, I don’t know where to start, how to try to describe The Bone Clocks in all it’s fantastical glory.
So. There are people called Atemporals, who sort of live forever, either being reborn after they die, or passing on from one body to another at the point of death. They are few in number though, and they are battling the Anchronites, who sort of do the same thing, but in a less..natural way. Into the midst of this secret, hidden, timeless good against evil battle falls Holly Sykes. If the first bit even remotely puts you off this novel, ignore it, because Holly Sykes is the real and greatest reason to read this book.

Following her over 70 years of her life, from when she is first drawn into the secret battle, as a sassy yet vulnerable teenager who runs away after being cruelly dumped by her boyfriend. The opening part perfectly captures a rebellious teenager and the utter lack of ability in both adult and child to bridge the chasm between each other. Despite her sharpness and quick wit Holly is unexperienced and naive in so many ways, but is forced to grow up quickly.

‘Yeah yeah yeah, you had twenty brothers and thirty sisters and forty grandparents and fifty acres of spuds to dig ’cause that was how life was in auld feckin’ Oireland but this is England. Mam, England! And it’s the 1980’s and if life was so feckin’ glorious in that West Cork bog why did you feckin’ bother even coming to -‘
Whack! Smack over the left side of my face.
We look at each other: me, trembling with shock, and Mam, angrier than I’ve ever seen her, and – I reckon – knowing she’s just broken something that’ll never be mended.

Mitchell perfectly captures the gut wrenching shit feeling after a break up when you’re a teenager, when the other one moves on, and you can’t help but feel for Holly, even as she herself suffers she never quite gives in, and her acerbic and sharp wit bring some absolutely hilariously funny lines for both her and Mitchell throughout the book.

Out in the open air my face dissolves into tears and snot, and a Morris Maxi slows down for the old fart at the wheel to get a good eyeful and I shout, ‘What are you bloody looking at?’ and, God it hurts it hurts it hurts, and I clamber over this gate into a wheatfield, where I’m hidden from the roundabout, and now I sob and sob and sob and sob and sob and sob and punch the ground and punch the ground and sob and sob and sob …And That’s it, I think, I’ve got no more tears left now, and then Vinny murmurs, ‘I love you,’ and reflected in his beautiful brown eyes is Stella Yearwood and here we go again. It’s like puking up an iffy Scotch egg – every time I think I’m done, there’s more.

Holly does move on though, and so does the book. Each part told from a different character’s point of view, with Holly in the background or very much in the foreground. For me, none of them quite match Holly, except perhaps for Crispin Hershey, who’s story is a brilliant, laugh-out-loud prick at pretentiousness. My only complaint on his part is, for me Mitchell veered just, and only just, too far into parody that it took away it’s impact, but it’s a minor, personal gripe. As hideous as Crispin comes across at the beginning, I felt he redeemed himself and provides a little warm light into Holly’s life, which by the end has had an inordinate amount of battle and loss in it, which had strengthened her character rather than beaten it.

Amongst the others are Hugo Lamb, the stereotypical rich kid, selfish and self-centred, out to make money regardless of the cost, an unpleasant character but one who you still take an interest in. While Brubeck is at once the anti-Vinny who reappears quite significantly later in Holly’s life is an interesting character, even if I wasn’t quite sure where his chapter fitted into the narrative. As it veers into the fantasy side Mitchell builds the tension at just the right pace as you get a rough grip on what is going on, and while all around her, everything she knows is challenged, Holly still remains Holly.

But I won’t sketch out too much of the plot for fear of spoiling it. There are times when you are reading and you wonder if Mitchell has forgotten the plot, and is just enjoying himself, but what he does do is build up to the key chapter, so that you are drawn in and fully ready. Another joy for me was the inclusion of a couple of characters from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, one of my favourite books. Mitchell explains his love of porting characters from his other novels into later ones and a people from some of his other novels also feature.

This is a what a story should be, the kind you write when you’re a kid and your imagination has no boundaries, just millions of possibilities firing in all directions and you write them all down in one epic jumble but that it has everything that a story should have. Only my second Mitchell novel, I am more tempted now to go to Cloud Atlas than after The Thousand Autumns, I need something to keep the clock ticking until the next novel.

Mariangela approaches with a stack of neatly folded bed-linen. ‘Yugo! Nurse Purvis, she told me you visit today. How is Nor-witch?’
‘Hugo is at Cambridge University, Mariangela.’ Nurse Purvis shivers. ‘Cambridge. Not Norwich. Quite different.’
‘Pardon, Yugo.’ Mariangela’s puckish Brazilian eyes arouse not only my hopes. ‘My geography of England, still a bit rubbish.’

‘Of course. It’s been wonderful catching up, Nurse Purvis.’
‘Be sure to say goodbye before you leave.’ Off she marches.
I ask Mariangela, ‘What’s she actually like to work for?’
‘We are accustomed to dictators in my continent.’
‘Does she sleep at night or plug herself into the mains?’
‘Is not a bad boss, if you agree with her always. At the least she is dependable. At the least, she says what she is thinking, honestly.’
I’d describe Mariangela as pouty but not vitriolic.