26 August 2015

Book Review - The Bone Clocks

At first glance, The Bone Clocks is what I would call a hefty book. I had not read any Mitchell books before this one, so did not know what to expect - all I had to go on was that it was a large tome, had beautiful cover illustrations, and had been longlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2014. As I started the first part of the book, "A Hot Spell", set in 1984, my first thoughts were that it was readable, and that Mitchell has a lovely writing style that draws you in. I personally get tired of authors who write page-long descriptions of a tree or a roof - for me, the talented writers are the ones who can paint that same picture in just a few sentences, and Mitchell is one of them.

Having said this, I then got to page 42-43 and things rapidly changed; the plot and style of the book suddenly warped into a psychodelic, chaotic and fantastical setting, and I couldn't keep up with the change of pace. I found myself turning back a few pages - had I missed something? An explanation which would have helped this part to make sense? However get to page 45, and we're back on familiar territory again, learning about the protagonist Holly Sykes and her life in Gravesend. A short, weird, and what appears to be random burst of fantasy slotted into the chapter - but I can assure you it's not random.

One of my favourite parts of the book is the next section, "Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume", set in 1991. We follow the life of Hugo Lamb, a scoundrel from Cambridge who is hell-bent on being rich and successful, whatever the cost. Mitchell creates such a fantastic array of 'Cambridge-types' - words uttered by Rufus Chetwynd-Pitt (awesome name) made my skin prickle with anger at his absurd sexism and crudeness, but that is exactly how you are meant to feel. As we travel with Hugo from Richmond to the ski resort of La Fontaine Sainte-Agnes, I experience the emotions of shock, anger, disgust and happiness. It is a whirlwind of a ride.

At first I wasn't so engrossed in the next chapter, "The Wedding Bash", set in 2004, but Mitchell's writing really started to sing as he delved into gritty, violent and harsh descriptions of life in Baghdad, Iraq. This part of history has all occurred during our lifetimes, yet I felt ashamed to not have thought much about what it was actually like to live it. Reading this was a powerful reminder that the horrors of dictatorships and war are not just confined to the past.

I really enjoyed getting to know the author Crispin Hershey in the next part of the book, "Crispin Hershey's Lonely Planet", set in 2015. I was extremely excited and even more hooked when I realised that the setting for our hero was my beloved Hay-on-Wye literary festival - Mitchell sure does know how to get on the side of all the book worms out there. It was also touching to get to know Holly Sykes (the girl we met right at the beginning) at a very different stage of her life, an older woman with a wealth of experiences and memories that probably far exceeded her 15 year old self's expectations.

We then come to the penultimate chapter, "An Horologist's Labyrinth", set in 2025 (you really do get a taste of all time periods in this book), and this was where I simply could not put the book down. Loose ends which had been quietly scattered amongst the previous 380 pages started to get tied up, and scenes which I had rendered slightly ridiculous in my mind suddenly became crucial, pivotal moments in the plot. Reading this, I felt almost rewarded for my commitment to the book up until this stage, as seeds which had been unwittingly planted in your mind by Mitchell very early on quickly came to fruition. Whilst I felt some parts were unneccessary, such as the lengthy description of Klara Koskov's life in Russia, I was soon proved wrong as this ended up being important to the plot. The end of this chapter then enabled me to enjoy a scene with my two favourite characters of the whole book; pages 518-520 were beautiful and emotional, and the conversation between the two has stuck with me ever since finishing the novel.

Unfortunately, the final section of the book for me was the weakest. "Sheep's Head", set in 2043, describes our world trying to recover from the blows our generations have dealt it, and failing to do so. We are told about the death of technology, the dangers of the Hinkley Point reactor, and things such as Ratflu, food rationing and general poverty which have made living in this time period so ghastly. It was not just that this chapter was so depressing, bleak and lacking hope (it was meant to be like this), but I also didn't find the writing as engaging at this point. Having said that, watching Holly Sykes in her old age is an important and appropriate end to the book, and although I felt it to be a slightly bizarre final conclusion, it was fitting.

Reading this novel was a rollercoaster of emotions, a hurtling journey through eras spanning the '80s right up to the new '40s, and I would go as far to say that it was a privilege to read. Despite ending on a sour note, I thought that the majority of the book was magnificent, and Mitchell thoroughly deserved to be on that Man Booker longlist. Yes, it took me a long time to read, but that was part of the experience. It is not often that I feel like I have actually lived alongside the characters of a book, having got to know them so well, but Holly Sykes, as well as Hugo, Ed, Crispin, Aoife and Marinus are characters which will stay with me for a very long time. I will be strongly recommending this book to those who are prepared to commit to a good novel - especially lovers of Hay-on-Wye.


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