“Power is lost or won, never created or destroyed. Power is a visitor to, not a possession of, those it empowers. The mad tend to crave it, many of the sane crave it, but the wise worry about its long-term side effects. Power is crack cocaine for your ego and battery acid for your soul. Power’s comings and goings, from host to host, via war, marriage, ballot box, diktat, and accident of birth, are the plot of history. The empowered may serve justice, remodel the Earth, transform lush nations into smoking battlefields, and bring down skyscrapers, but power itself is amoral.” Immaculée Constantin now looks up at me. “Power will notice you. Power is watching you now. Carry on as you are, and power will favor you. But power will also laugh at you, mercilessly, as you lie dying in a private clinic, a few fleeting decades from now. Power mocks all its illustrious favorites as they lie dying. ‘Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away.’”
Metaphysics. Political intrigue. Mystery. Philosophy. Tragedy. Romance. All of this and more will you encounter as you tread carefully through the pervasive twilight of the labyrinthine narrative of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. The novel, long-listed for for the Man Booker Prize in 2014 and awarded the World Fantasy Award in 2015, is a gripping, thrilling page-turner that seized my attention and never let go. It is an intricate tale of fear, power, and lust, one certain to appeal to the detail-oriented and cynical minds of metalheads the world over.
The Bone Clocks is in truth six tales woven together, each encompassing a pendulum swing of the life of protagonist Holly Sykes as she matures from a head strong, Led Zeppelin-loving teen in the British 1980s to a wizened, jaded old woman in a crumbling Irish stability zone in the 2040s. As Holly’s tale unfolds, her life is told through the eyes of one of several different characters. These characters range in morality, age, and relation to Holly, but central to each of their stories is a steadfast English woman and a bizarre, unnerving, ethereal world of mystic power and psychic terror. Each story is a different path through a psychic maze wherein two groups of immortals with differing views on the role of humanity wage bitter war against each other through the eons. Reality is consistently juxtaposed against fantasy, leading readers to constantly question the size and scale of events within the book and, consequently, their own perspectives. “What did that phrase mean?” I found myself leafing back through the pages to find a vague clue. “I wonder how that event will unfold in the future.” When atemporal metahumans can alter the flow of reality’s stream and influence events centuries in the making, readers will wonder what hope humans have in forging their own destinies. Are we all simply subject to the external, cosmic whims of amoral schemers?
That isn’t to say that the characters are unrelatable. Quite the opposite actually. Even the immortal spellweavers, sitting within their webs of lies and intrigue, have believable desires, fears, weaknesses. No character is a moral absolute. Mitchell deftly avoids the pitfalls of static characterization by writing relevant, unreliable, and familiar characters who deceive and steal to accomplish their ends but also rise to heights of greatness and beauty as their lives (or metalives in the case of the atemporals) encounter a simple British woman of exemplary character.
Bolstering this sense of realism in the face of fantasy are the historic time periods portrayed through each story. Though the book itself spans into the near future, the first four individual arcs encompass more recent time periods and historic events: the aforementioned 1980s in the UK, Cambridge University in the early 90s, a politically severed Iraq in the early 2000s, and a decadent literary convention in Columbia in the 2010s. David Mitchell has an agile mind capable of bestowing near infinite detail upon each story, grounding the fantasy in a believable and relevant reality.
From the realism and historic detail, a wellspring of philosophical questioning issues forth. Was Foucault’s definition of power correct? Is there absolute truth? Is there ever truly absolution for wrongdoing? Is power moral? Was Nietzsche wrong? Is modern life unsustainable? Does every choice we ever make matter in the grand scheme of eternity? By plotting all of these questions within both the cycle of a normal woman fighting desperately for her family and against the backdrop of a timeless, mystic war, we are given an infinite space to ponder both the small and the momentous implications of our own actions.
All of this would be meaningless, though, if Mitchell’s writing was terrible. I can gladly report, though, that the author’s tight, precise prose is some of the most compelling I’ve read in a long time. The characters are believable, the plot, both in the larger scale and individually in each of the six stories, is wholly engaging. The mystery is palpable, and the conflicts are grave. Moreover, Mitchell has a sharp, witty phrasing that avoids overwrought hyperbole in favor of careful, concise diction and syntax. Several times I found myself reading a line to my brother-in-law with an appreciative smirk. Most important, though, is Mitchell’s sense of structure. As I previously alluded, details mentioned in the very first story do not resolve until the very end; the author is content to allow the narrative to unfold organically, the cosmic importance of the mystic conflict only unveiling itself in bits and pieces at a time. It isn’t truly apparent what’s really transpiring until the fourth chapter or so, but the central story of Holly’s life (and those of the supporting actors) is so engaging that witnessing the mystery illuminate is part of the fun.
My only quibble with this book is that the denouement feels sluggish after the momentous climax in the fifth story, but the conclusion is satisfying. I have no other faults with this book, and even that one is only minor. The Bone Clocks is the first book in a good while that I have been utterly unable to put down, and for that, I award it 4.5/5 Literary Toilets ov Hell.
Intriguingly, Mitchell leaves us with a playlist encompassing the varying humors of the novel. I’ve compiled a youtube playlist of those tracks for your aural stimulation.
You can find The Bone Clocks wherever fine literature is sold.