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David Mitchell: The Bone Clocks

Mitchell’s stock in trade has often (though not always) been mixing realism and fantasy, often so you do not know where one begins and the other ends. This is what he does here but some critics have not taken too kindly to it, finding it somewhat confusing, as they are eager for straightforward British realism – what you see is what you get. This is a pity because Mitchell does it very well indeed and, in doing so, produces a thoroughly original work, Surprisingly, though it made the Man Booker prize 2014 longlist, it did not make the shortlist. Perhaps the judges felt that too many of the other candidates strayed from the realist agenda.

The story follows Holly Sykes over a period of years. Cleverly, though the first part is told from her point of view, the subsequent parts tend to be about other people, narrated by these people, in which, eventually, you realise that Holly must make an appearance but you wonder how, where and when she will do so. The first part is set in the 1980s. Holly is a fifteen-year old girl. She lives with her parents, who own a pub called Captain Marlow (shades of Conrad). Her father is a fairly easy-going Englishman, her mother a less easy-going Irish woman. She has an older brother, Brendan, who is married, and a younger sister, Sharon, and a younger brother, Jacko. The pub is in Gravesend, a grim town in Kent. Holly is fed-up with school, and, at the moment, her attention is on her boyfriend, Vincent (Vince) Costello. Vince is a twenty-four/five (he is given both ages) used car salesman. As he is having sex with Holly, he is breaking the law. When Holly has a row with her mother about him, she decides to leave home and go and live with Vince. Unfortunately, when she arrives at his house, she finds him in bed with her best friend. Determined not to give her mother the satisfaction of returning home, she decides to run away.

When she was younger, Holly used to hear voices from what she called the Radio People. These were relieved, when a woman she knew as Miss Constantin (we later know her as Immaculée Constantin) used to come and sit on her bed and talk to her. Only when her father came into the room when she was talking to Miss Constantin and could not see her, did Holly start to think that Mss Constantin may be special. When Miss Constantin helps her deal with a school bully, everything comes out and Holly’s mother takes her to a doctor, who cures Holly of Miss Constantin. Since that time – seven years previously – Holly has had no strange visions. However, while running away she has two – first she thinks she sees Jacko, in a place where he could not and should not be. She follows him into a subway and has something of a vision. She is then given a lift by a couple selling Socialist Worker. They invite her back to their house for a meal and, while she is doing the washing up, they appear to have been murdered by a mysterious, otherworldly man who threatens but does not harm Holly.

She is helped in running away by Ed Brubeck, who is at her school. He is something of a loner, having come down from Manchester, where his father is serving time in prison. He will reappear later in the book. The next part of the book involves a thoroughly amoral Cambridge law student, Hugo Lamb, who cheats his friends and steals from an Alzheimer’s patient but meets the woman we now know as Immaculée Constantin as well as meeting Holly, who is working in a bar in an Alpine ski resort. From Hugo Lamb we are back with Ed Brubeck, who is now a journalist in the dangerous parts of the Middle East, a job he enjoys, even while being well aware of the risk. It also gives Mitchell a chance to damn Western policy in Iraq.

One of the most amusing sections is the part involving Crispin Hershey. He is/was the Wild Child of British Letters. Interestingly and, perhaps, obviously, Mitchell makes no reference to Scottish independence. Hershey himself may be the Wild Child of British Letters, though he is irredeemably English. We meet him in the future – his story starts in May 2015. He is clearly based, at least in part, on Martin Amis, even down to the famous father (though Anthony Hershey is a film director, not a writer), with father-son issues an element. Critic Richard Cheeseman has damned Hershey’s latest book, commenting The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look, which could clearly apply to this book (and I assume Mitchell is well aware of that). Hershey is a smartarse, wise-cracking, drug-using womaniser whom, like Hugo Lamb, we cannot really like. He is still living on the success of his first book and his subsequent books have all been less successful, both critically and commercially. Initially, we meet him at various international literary festivals, where he can damn others, while promoting himself. His spat with the wittily named Aphra Booth, for example, gives Mitchell a chance to damn extreme feminists. He meets Holly early on – at the Hay festival, where she is reading from her book about her experience with the Radio People and the disappearance of her brother. Hershey despises her and her book but gets to know her better at a festival in Fremantle, when he meets her and her daughter Aoife on Rottnest Island.

While these events are taking place we are gradually learning that there is some sort of Illuminati conspiracy going on which all of these characters are unwittingly drawn into. At the same time, there seems to be some opposition to the conspiracy by other characters. Mitchell deliberately keeps this vague, using strange names for what is happening and having strange things happen. At times, it seems to border on the silly, at least if you are not a fan of Dan Brown or other similar writers, but, fortunately, Mitchell is such a good writer, that it just about works. However, I can see why some reviewers find it awkward, including Richard Cheeseman in his review of Crispin Hershey’s book, cited above. There is a strong political element from his criticism of the Brown/Blair Iraq policy and with the final chapter giving us a dystopic view of the world as the oil runs out and anarchy descends. Overall, I felt that this was another highly original work from Mitchell. It kept me guessing till more or less the end and had a good story, even if the fantasy plot seemed somewhat far-fetched. Mitchell’s story-telling and his originality, however, confirm him as one of the best novelists writing in England and it is surprising to me that this was not shortlisted for the Man Booker.

Publishing history

First published 2014 by Sceptre