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Book Club: The Bone Clocks

Book Club: The Bone Clocks

This week's Book Club entry, The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Posted on 21st June 2015 by David Mitchell & Pete Renton

David Mitchell has already written for us this week about his habit of occasionally bringing back his characters into his novels so today, to mark his newest novel featuring in our Book Club, we'll hand the reigns over to one of our booksellers to tell you more. Pete from our Nottingham store, one of the best reviewers on our website, wrote the following five star review:

'Like Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten before it, The Bone Clocks sees Mitchell weaving a dense and kaleidoscopic novel out of disparate stories, tones and genres.

Holly Sykes fills this book. Bookmarking the beginning and end with first-person narration, we experience her life as a fifteen year-old runaway and as a grandmother trying to protect her children in a world falling apart at the seams. But in the intervening years we catch glimpses of her from the perspectives of a cast of acquaintances, lovers and friends such as the Bret Easton Ellis-esque sociopathic monster that is Hugo Lamb, a twenty-something egotistical conman intent on scoring against his rich Cambridge cohorts; the work obsessed journalist that is her husband; or the kind and thoughtful Marinus who understands something of her and the part she has to play in a war that is coming to a bitter end.

These stories are eclectic and entertaining, splattering different layers of colour onto a canvas that can enjoyed on their own, but are at their best when viewed from above. It’s also thoughtful, dealing with subjects as diverse as climate change, the attraction of Old Testament religion in dire times and the addictive pull of journalism. There are some superb one-liners in this, possibly his funniest novel, as characters verbally spar, and internalised thoughts are loaded with self-deprecating wit. But although the early chapters have an easygoing charm to them, darker notes start to appear in the cracks, leading through war-torn Iraq to Colombian jails before ending up in a bleak and curiously parochial post-apocalyptic setting for the final chapter.

Although he has brought back characters in other novels, The Bone Clocks is Mitchell at his most overtly self-referential. Instead of being an exercise in fan-service, he manages to make us look at his previous work in a new light. The cryptic cult in the Japanese mountains of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is unmasked as part of The Bone Clock’s mythos as well as beings similar to the mournful anonymous protagonist in Ghostwritten’s ‘Mongolia’ chapter. Elsewhere we see where Luisa Rey ended up after her (possibly fictionalised?) expose of HYDRA in Cloud Atlas and the further activities of Jason Taylor’s cool cousin Hugo Lamb from Black Swan Green as well as a smorgasbord of other callbacks.

The paranormal background that these stories exist in is an almost Stephen King-esque battle of immortal wills that has been playing out over hundreds of years with two warring sides of psychic beings that operate as moral opposites. The Horologists are gifted with eternal reincarnation; while their enemies the Anchorites must constantly drink the souls of psychically gifted children to stay youthful (like King’s True Knot from Doctor Sleep.) If all this sounds a bit much to take in, don’t worry. Mitchell lowers you gently into his fantasy bath, slowly revealing more of the otherness behind the world as you traverse through Holly’s life, looking at her through stranger’s eyes. 

This is a novel easy to recommend to fans of Mitchell’s previous work, but that’s preaching to the choir. The Bone Clocks is a rare book with all of its limbs in different pastry dishes, and an entertaining ride with something for everybody.'

Thank you, Pete! If any of that appealed to you (and we hope it does!) you can further test the water with an extract from The Bone Clocks, below.

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I fling open my bedroom curtains, and there’s the thirsty sky and the wide river full of ships and boats and stuff, but I’m already thinking of Vinny’s chocolatey eyes, shampoo down Vinny’s back, beads of sweat on Vinny’s shoulders, and Vinny’s sly laugh, and by now my heart’s going mental and, God, I wish I was waking up at Vinny’s place in Peacock Street and not in my own stupid bedroom. Last night, the words just said themselves, ‘Christ, I really love you,Vin,’ and Vinny puffed out a cloud of smoke and did this Prince Charles voice,‘One must say, one’s frightfully partial to spending time with you too, Holly Sykes,’ and I nearly weed myself laughing, though I was a bit narked he didn’t say, ‘I love you too,’ back. If I’m honest. Still, boyfriends act goofy to hide stuff, any magazine’ll tell you.Wish I could phone him right now.Wish they’d invent phones you can speak to anyone anywhere anytime on. He’ll be riding his Norton to work in Rochester right now, in his leather jacket with led zep spelt out in silver studs. Come September, when I turn sixteen, he’ll take me out on his Norton.

Someone slams a cupboard door, below.

Mam. No one else’d dare slam a door like that.

Suppose she’s found out? says a twisted voice.

No. We’ve been too careful, me and Vinny.

She’s menopausal, is Mam. That’ll be it.

Talking Heads’ Fear of Music is on my record player, so I lower the stylus.Vinny bought me this LP, the second Saturday we met at Magic Bus Records. It’s an amazing record. I like ‘Heaven’ and ‘Memories Can’t Wait’ but there’s not a weak track on it.Vinny’s been to NewYork and actually sawTalking Heads, live. His mate Dan was on security and got Vinny backstage after the gig, and he hung out with David Byrne and the band. If he goes back next year, he’s taking me. I get dressed, finding each love bite and wishing I could go to Vinny’s tonight, but he’s meeting a bunch of mates in Dover. Men hate it when women act jealous, so I pretend not to be. My best friend Stella’s gone to London to hunt for second-hand clothes at Camden Market. Mam says I’m still too young to go to London without an adult so Stella took Ali Jessop instead. My biggest thrill today’ll be hoovering the bar to earn my three pounds pocket money.Whoopy-doo.Then I’ve got next week’s exams to revise for. But for two pins I’d hand in blank papers and tell school where to shove Pythagoras triangles and Lord of the Flies and their life cycles of worms. I might, too.

Yeah. I might just do that.

Down in the kitchen, the atmosphere’s like Antarctica. ‘Morning,’ I say, but only Jacko looks up from the window-seat where he’s drawing.Sharon’s through in the lounge part,watching a cartoon. Dad’s downstairs in the hallway, talking with the delivery guy – the truck from the brewery’s grumbling away in front of the pub. Mam’s chopping cooking apples into cubes, giving me the silent treatment. I’m supposed to say, ‘What’s wrong, Mam, what have I done?’ but sod that for a game of soldiers. Obviously she noticed I was back late last night, but I’ll let her raise the topic. I pour some milk over my Weetabix and take it to the table. Mam clangs the lid onto the pan and comes over.‘Right.What have you got to say for yourself?’

‘Good morning to you too, Mam. Another hot day.’

‘What have you got to say for yourself, young lady?’

If in doubt, act innocent. ‘’Bout what exactly?’

Her eyes go all snaky. ‘What time did you get home?’

‘Okay, okay, so I was a bit late, sorry.’

‘Two hours isn’t “a bit late”. Where were you?’

I munch my Weetabix. ‘Stella’s. Lost track of time.’

‘Well, that’s peculiar, now, it really is. At ten o’clock I phoned Stella’s mam to find out where the hell you were, and guess what? You’d left before eight. So who’s the liar here, Holly? You or her?’

Shit. ‘After leaving Stella’s, I went for a walk.’ ‘And where did your walk take you to?’

I sharpen each word. ‘Along the river, all right?’

‘Upstream or downstream, was it, this little walk?’

I let a silence go by. ‘What diffrence does it make?’

There’re some cartoon explosions on the telly. Mam tells my sister,‘Turn that thing off and shut the door behind you,Sharon.’

‘That’s not fair! Holly’s the one getting told off.’

Now, Sharon. And you too, Jacko, I want—’ But Jacko’s already vanished. When Sharon’s left, Mam takes up the attack again: ‘All alone, were you, on your “walk”?’

Why this nasty feeling she’s setting me up? ‘Yeah.’

‘How far d’you get on your “walk”, then, all alone?’

‘What – you want miles or kilometres?’

‘Well, perhaps your little walk took you up Peacock Street, to a certain someone calledVincent Costello?’

The kitchen sort of swirls, and through the window, on the Essex shore of the river, a tiny stick-man’s lifting his bike off the ferry. ‘Lost for words all of a sudden? Let me jog your memory: ten o’clock last night, closing the blinds, front window, wearing a T-shirt and not a lot else.’

Yes, I did go downstairs to get Vinny a lager.Yes, I did lower the blind in the front room. Yes, someone did walk by. Relax, I’d told myself. What’s the chances of one stranger recognising me? Mam’s expecting me to crumple, but I don’t.‘You’re wasted as a barmaid, Mam.You ought to be handling supergrasses for MI5.’

Mam gives me the Kath Sykes Filthy Glare.‘How old is he?’ Now I fold my arms.‘None of your business.’

Mam’s eyes go slitty. ‘Twenty-four, apparently.’

‘If you already know, why’re you asking?’ 

‘Because a twenty-four-year-old man interfering with a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl is illegal. He could go to prison.’

‘I’ll be sixteen in September, and I reckon the Kent Police have bigger fish to fry. I’m old enough to make up my own mind about my relationships.’

Mam lights one of her Marlboro Reds. I’d kill for one.

‘When I tell your father, he’ll flay this Costello fella alive.’

Sure, Dad has to persuade piss-artists off the premises from time to time, all landlords do, but he’s not the flaying-anyone- alive type. ‘Brendan was fifteen when he was going out with Mandy Fry, and if you think they were just holding hands on the swings, they weren’t. Don’t recall him getting the “You could go to prison” treatment.’

She spells it out like I’m a moron: ‘It’s – different – for – boys.’

I do an I-do-not-believe-what-I’m-hearing snort. 

‘I’m telling you now, Holly, you’ll be seeing this . . . car salesman again over my dead body.’

‘Actually, Mam, I’ll bloody see who I bloody well want!’

‘New rules.’ Mam stubs out her fag. ‘I’m taking you to school and fetching you back in the van. You don’t set foot outside unless it’s with me, your father, Brendan or Ruth. If I glimpse this cradle-snatcher anywhere near here, I’ll be on the blower to the police to press charges – yes, I will, so help me, God. And – and – I’ll call his employer and let them know that he’s seducing underage schoolgirls.’ 

Big fat seconds ooze by while all of this sinks in.

My tear ducts start twitching but there’s no way I’m giving Mrs Hitler the pleasure. ‘This isn’t Saudi Arabia! You can’t lock me up!’ 

‘Live under our roof, you obey our rules. When I was your age—’

‘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 1980s 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. I leave the room without a word, as if I’ve just won an argument.