“The Bone Clocks” by David Mitchell


Since being cherry-picked as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2003, David Mitchell has steadily risen to become one of the most revered authors in the UK and indeed the world. Mitchell pleases the literati; his debut novel, Ghostwritten, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and was also shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award while his following two novels, number9dream and Cloud Atlas, were both shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2001 and 2004 respectively. His novels are also commercially successful and his mind-boggling, time-travelling Cloud Atlas was adapted for the big screen to much acclaim in 2012. The Bone Clocks, Mitchell’s sixth novel, was published in September of this year (2014) and duly slotted into Mitchell’s successful catalogue when it was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize even before it was released.


The book itself boasts a vibrant, stylish, Daliesque cover that fittingly depicts the eclectic goings-on inside. The Bone Clocks follows in the vein of Cloud Atlas by showcasing Mitchell’s brilliantly sporadic and thoroughly engaging imagination with a narrative that seamlessly traverses genre, geography and time. In a Guardian podcast discussing the novel, Mitchell, tongue-in-cheek, describes how after writing his sixth novel he has discovered that he is actually a writer of novellas. The six interconnected ‘novellas’ that form The Bone Clocks span six decades—beginning rather ominously in 1984—and, broadly speaking, chart the life of protagonist Holly Sykes. The novel is underpinned by a fantastical subplot that comes to the fore in novella five, and this has led some critics and reviewers to claim that The Bone Clocks falls into the more fantastical of Mitchell’s oeuvre alongside the likes of Cloud Atlas. This is probably true, and Mitchell’s ability to balance the fantastical alongside the realistic world he creates reminded me of Murakami and 1Q84 in particular. It is worth noting, however, that Mitchell experiments with genre in this novel and each separate novella might be argued to belong to distinctly different genres: the first, for example, is almost young adult fiction, while novella five belongs to fantasy, and novella six offers a disturbing dystopia that harks back to the ominous date when the whole tale begins. I felt that this novel shows Mitchell at his masterful best. He is in complete control of The Bone Clocks from start to finish, and he is also astoundingly aware of his own act of creation and adding to his existing body of work, most notable in his decision to recast characters (Hugo Lamb and Marinus, for instance) from and include allusions to his older novels.


As we proceed through each of the six sections of The Bone Clocks, Mitchell continuously shifts the perspective to give (I think) a more rounded view of events and to enable the reader to empathise with a greater number of characters. The central glue which binds the myriad of perspectives together is that they all, somehow, come back to the central character: Holly Sykes. It is with Holly that the novel begins, at this point a love-drunk Kentish teenager affected by enigmatic visions which crop up during bouts of unconsciousness. Things tumble when Ms Sykes finds her beloved boyfriend in bed with her supposed BFFL and she decides to avoid the embarrassment by shuffling off to pick strawberries on a local farm for a few weeks. Reality beckons, however, when she hears a rumour that her younger brother Jacko has mysteriously gone missing on the same day she ran away from home.


The second novella is told from the perspective of Cambridge student Hugo Lamb, who is revealed as a quite repulsive toff, misogynist and cheat. Mitchell nails the narrative voice which is authentic, believable, but also thoroughly satirical and extremely enjoyable to read. The narrative runs a fair way until Ms Sykes crops up as a bartender at a ski resort where Lamb and his cronies have decided to bring in the New Year skiing, boozing and getting high on expensive drugs. I thought it a fitting end to this section that his pals wind up pulling a crowd of prostitutes on New Year’s Eve and then being faced with an irate gang of pimps the following morning.


The third section follows Ed Brubeck, a character we first meet in novella one as the school friend and probable admirer of Holly, but who is now a foreign reporter based in Blairite war-torn Iraq. The prismatic nature of Mitchell’s fantastic mind compels him to also split this section into two narratives, juxtaposing episodes of Ed’s life in Iraq where he is exposed to the cold, tragic realities of war with his comfy family life in the UK. In the 20 years that have elapsed since the novel’s beginnings, Ed has married his childhood sweetheart Holly Sykes and in between doses of bombs, explosions and death we are confided with Ed’s impossible dilemma of balancing a rewarding career that he is completely addicted to and his love for his family. Fate jumps in to pretty much make his mind up for him, but not before a splash of the fantastical from his wife when their young daughter goes missing.


Next we are in the midst of struggling author Crispin Hershey who dawdles through life on the back of a novel published when he was a bright young thing straight out of Cambridge, like our old friend Hugo Lamb. A number of underwhelming and rather mediocre follow-ups have allowed Crispin to elongate his success as far as it can go, but when we meet him his literary career is in a sorry and desperate state. His book signings are non-events and his longstanding publisher seems to have had enough too. In the meanwhile, Holly Sykes has penned a book detailing her skirmishes with the fantastical and has become a literary phenomenon à la Fifty Shades, and the pitiful Mr Hershey becomes a nondescript onlooker possessed by the green-eyed monster. While wallowing in his own self-pity, he commits an unforgiveable act of revenge on a scathing critic before eventually accepting his fate and befriending Ms Sykes.


The penultimate section of The Bone Clocks virtually defies explanation unless you are reading the book. Basically, the fantastical elements that have been bubbling away and effervescing from time to time as the novel has gone on now explodes into action as Holly ventures to ‘the other side’ to complete a mission with Marinus, whose perspective we are granted for this section, and the rest of the so-called Horologists in their fight against evil. This inevitably all seems quite melodramatic and probably a little bit Twilight-esque, but don’t worry, dear reader, Mitchell is a kind writer who never takes things too far and the narrative reflects meaningfully on what takes place in the rest of the novel.


The sixth and final section of The Bone Clocks sees the reader returned to the perspective of Holly Sykes and the peaceful backdrop of Ireland from where Holly’s family originates. When I say peaceful however, I mean horrific, as we are greeted with an unsettling dystopia where Holly’s grandchildren are bewildered by the idea of a past where there was unlimited electricity, diesel and places where you could go to buy virtually whatever you wanted. In 2043, however, a small solar panel is all the family have as a means of electricity, food is provided in meagre rations and there is a daily struggle for life-dependant necessities such as insulin for her diabetic grandson, Rafiq. To top things off, there is great civil unrest in Ireland, leaving its residents in increasingly trying conditions. Holly struggles to envisage a future for her grandchildren, and this is a startling and depressing vision which might not actually be that far away from an accurate depiction of 2043.


On the whole, this kaleidoscopic novel which glides through time and space is truly a riveting read capable of holding anyone’s attention for long periods of time. Despite standing at a bulky 640 pages long, the novel’s structure means that it can be gulped down in six delightful loads and the protean nature of each section will ensure you will never tire or become bored of the action. The Bone Clocks shows Mitchell to be a versatile, adept writer at the top of his game, and surely it won’t be long before that elusive Booker is sat on his mantelpiece?



“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler


“Those who know me now will be surprised to hear that I was a great talker as a child…”

“My father would come to my bedroom door each night to wish me happy dreams and I would speak without taking a breath, trying desperately to keep him in my room with only my voice. I would see his hand on the doorknob, the door beginning to swing shut. I have something to say! I’d tell him, and the door would stop midway.

Start in the middle then, he’d answer, a shadow with the hall light behind him, and tired in the evenings the way grown-ups are. The light would reflect in my bedroom window like a star you could wish on.

Skip the beginning. Start in the middle.”


Taking her father’s advice, Rosemary Cooke begins her story somewhere near the middle, as a 22 year-old student at the University of California, Davis, reflecting on her family upbringing. It is a subject, she tells us, that she normally avoids. In fact she has a designated story of digression which she can routinely fall into when the topic does occasionally crop up, which will allow her to divulge in a family story that actually reveals nothing about the supposed irregularity of her upbringing. What is she so keen to avoid? Well she soon explains that it has been ten years since she last saw her brother, Lowell, as he boarded a bus and absconded the family home. Why he left is shrouded in mystery, but it seems that since he went he has been getting himself into a spot of bother, especially when the FBI rock up at the family home. What is even more peculiar is that Rosemary has not seen her twin sister, Fern, for 17 years when she left the family home at the tender age of five. Rosemary spent the aftermath of that split in the company of her grandparents, a central narrative in this novel which sees Rosemary piece together her enigmatic childhood and the fragmentation of her family by piecing together the opaque fragments of her recollections alongside information she gleans as the novel proceeds.


You can only discuss We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves to a certain point before revealing a crucial plot twist. Karen Joy Fowler goes a miraculous 77 pages before revealing this nuance but I don’t think I will be able to get past this sentence, and so if you are about to read the book and don’t want this information to be revealed then I advise you to bookmark the page and dive straight into the book. But when Fern is unveiled as a chimpanzee who was reared alongside our protagonist as an experiment understandably changes the dynamics of the work. However, by leaving this detail out for the best part of a quarter of the novel, it is fair to say that Fowler wants readers to consider this family as normally as possible before we jump to the conclusions and assumptions we typically would when faced with a family bringing up a chimpanzee as part of a social experiment. After the revelation, the narrative does shift to become more explicitly political and suggestive about animal rights, protection and essentially to the human perspective of creatures not considered to be human. It does so by including numerous anecdotes of similar scientific experiments, their outcomes, consideration of the cases of other creatures and so on. In the end it all focalises back to the empathy we feel towards Fern gained from the first-person perspective of her sister, Rosemary. However one of my reservations about WAACBO is that Rosemary’s digression to discuss other anecdotes and into the minutiae of different research could be difficult to follow at times and did draw attention away from the main strand of the narrative. BUT Rosemary does inform us in her prologue that she has always been a good talker, and so the digressing may also be a realistic part of her personality.


And the realism of her character was, for me, absolutely the best part of this book. The narrative voice is brilliantly engaging, entertaining, but also thought-provoking. Rosemary herself admits that her recollection of her memories is fallible and you soon find that you should take everything Rosemary says with a pinch of salt and try to consider the narrative as objectively as you possibly can. I also found Rosemary’s narration hilarious, a bit edgy and quirky, but always extremely funny. From describing how her didactically-inclined father, “a college professor and a pedant to the bone” ensured that “every exchange contained a lesson, like the pit in a cherry” to the effervescent exchange that opens the novel when Harlow (I love this description) “threw a spoon that bounced audibly off [a young man’s] forehead”, Rosemary’s ability to polish her anecdotes with a colourful shining of wit makes this novel tireless and a pleasure to read.


Despite its humour, WAACBO is a novel with a poignant purpose and serious themes. It is about animal rights, animal protection and the attitude that humans take towards animal experimentation. It is about discrimination, communication and the human rejection to include ourselves as part of the animal kingdom. But it is foremost a novel about family, about love and what makes us the species that we are. WAACBO is completely original in its blend of laugh-out-loud entertainment, engagement with contemporary world issues and I would thoroughly recommend this Booker Prize longlisted novel.


What did you think of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves? I would love to hear your thoughts!