David Mitchell may be the greatest novelist in the English language currently in his prime. Never content to simply tell a story, his works jump time periods and narrators, creating a maelstrom of perspectives that always cohere in unexpected ways. Cloud Atlas, his masterpiece, turned what could have purely been a formal experiment (seven different stories, each one bookending the next) into a stunning look at humanity over eons. Mitchell is a master of the long view, his themes and narratives spanning eras. His latest novel, The Bone Clocks, is no exception. Even more miraculously, it manages to be a fast-paced thriller as well.
After a row with her parents, teenager Holly Sykes runs away from home, stumbling onto a war between supernatural forces she cannot possibly comprehend. Although unable to remember what has happened to her, Holly emerges forever changed by her brief entanglement with the uncanny, able to see the future and channel memories of the long-dead. The Bone Clocks follows Holly for the rest of her life as the war she cannot remember still rages on in the periphery, affecting friends and family as it draws toward its final conflict.
In the hands of another author, The Bone Clocks would have been a strange mix of Tom Clancy and George R.R. Martin: a cloak-and-dagger fantasy novel with a giant cast of interlocking characters and shady conspiracies. Mitchell provides hints of such a book, especially in the penultimate section, which deals with the supernatural conflict head on, but forgoes the obvious narrative for a grander meditation on what it means to be human. A chapter that mostly takes place in Iraq displays how the choices of an elite few can destroy the lives of people thousands of miles away, resonating deeply with the supernatural battle at the center of the novel. Another, following a few years of a writer whose career is on the wane, explores the personas authors take on, and how responsible they truly are for their own work.
Each chapter is its own story, its own meditation, but nonetheless fits perfectly into the whole, resonating with what came before and what comes after. It’s tempting to say that Mitchell has “convincingly created a world” but that is in fact untrue: The Bone Clocks exists side by side with a number of Mitchell’s previous works. Chapters of the book serve as sequels to Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green, and, astoundingly, The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet, which takes place in late 18th-century Japan. There’s always the danger in Mitchell’s work of getting “too meta,” and he most certainly gets close to the line here, but the mentioned books are not required reading for The Bone Clocks, just simply bits of icing on the already delicious cake.
Although Cloud Atlas will most likely be Mitchell’s most beloved book by the end of his career (and has the highest chance of entering the literary canon), The Bone Clocks will hopefully be the book that fans pass on to their friends and family, their voices a little hushed as they say, “Read this one—I think it’s better.”