2018 Reading List: The Bone Clocks

I feel like I’ve read five full novels in the span of 600+ pages. And when I finished, I Googled, “what is a bone clock” because after all that the meaning of the term and the title of the book completely escaped me.

I read The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell, with my office’s book club group, and though I can’t imagine fully summarizing it in any length of blog post, I will do my best.

This book spanned time, characters, countries, plot-lines, and reality in a way that riddles the reader’s mind and defies logic. One minute I was a stowaway with Holly, mad at the unfaithful boyfriend, the next I’m whisked through Cambridge and into Switzerland, cheating friends and mentors to make a buck, relying on wit and charm to get out of trouble, and then before I know it, I’m in the trenches, with shrapnel raining down around me, gunshots in the distance. And then we’re at a literary event, full of high society and esteemed critics, where a packet of drugs puts a friend behind bars, and then we get swept off around the globe where we meet the atemporal beings who live forever, reborn in the bodies of dying children, communicating through telepathy and stopping time. And at the end of it all, we’re 25 years in the future, surviving a near-apocalypse after civilization has wasted every resource and forced its citizens to resort to an ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

I promise, this is just one book.

I would never have chosen to read this for myself. I would have read the book jacket (if I were in a library or bookstore) and gotten the hint that it may be more complicated than I would enjoy. But as is my nature, I will attempt any book that my co-workers put on the list, and since I downloaded a digital version from the library, there was no book jacket to scare me off.

To give you the most brief of synopses, this book loosely follows the life of Holly Sykes, from the time she is a teenager in the 1980’s to her old age in the 2040’s. Plus everything surrounding and connected to that. There are six parts to the book, told from the perspectives of five different narrators, one of which is Holly and the other four of which are connected to Holly during her life.

There’s Hugo Lamb, who is quite the character. He is a university student who is cheating his friends and mentor out of money and hiding that cash away under a fake name. He goes to Switzerland for the holidays, meets an Atemporal (someone who can live forever reborn in the bodies of dying children), also meets and falls in love with Holly, and then decides to join the Anchorites (someone who lives forever by killing young children).

Then there’s Ed Brubeck, who was friends with Holly in high school and they end up getting married and having a daughter. But Ed is a war junkie who refuses to quit his journalism career to be with his family. He ends up getting bombed in Baghdad.

Next there’s Crispin Hershey, the famed author, whose new book is not nearly as well-received as his previous book. The critic, Richard Cheeseman (previously friends with  Hugo Lamb), has decimated Hershey’s new book, so to take revenge, Hershey plants drugs in the critics luggage and Cheeseman ends up in jail for years. Hershey never confesses. Hershey meets Holly at a literary event because she has written a book about the voices she used to hear in her head. They become friends.

Marinus is our last narrator – she is an Atemporal and an Horologist. She was actually present in Holly’s life at an early age and is back, to wage war against the Anchorites. She explains everything to Holly, and tells her that, in fact, there is an Atemporal living in Holly’s mind at that very moment. Holly only believes her when she is almost killed by a group of Anchorites. So Holly joins forces with the Horologists, in the hopes that she may see her brother again, who had disappeared as a child, and who she is also told is playing host to the oldest known Atemporal.

The war happens. The Anchorites are defeated and Holly escapes but she loses her friend Marinus in the process and must continue on with life.

When we next see Holly she is an old woman in Ireland, a cancer survivor, raising her granddaughter and a refugee during the apparent apocalypse. The world has used up its natural resources and people must live off the land, forgoing all of the modern technology we had worked so hard to create and innovate.

Lo and behold, Marinus reappears to save the granddaughter and refugee by taking them away on a ship to Iceland, because that is the safest country in the world.

The End. (Sorry, that wasn’t really the most brief.)

If you’ve made it this far, bravo. I can’t say I loved this book. I found it very hard to get through, challenging to follow, and just not my style. I felt like it really only got interesting when I was about 65% of the way through. At that point, I felt like the stories were starting to come together, and I was making the connections.

I will say that when I put down the book, I was so intrigued by the final part, set in the 2040’s, that I just had to talk to someone about it. The way that Mitchell wrote this section, describing the reasons why the world ran out of resources and the way that society was compensating, was so utterly possible that it terrified me. The fact that we could just use up all the oil and natural gas and then cars wouldn’t run, products wouldn’t get delivered, stores wouldn’t have things to sell, services would not be provided, goods would not be purchased. We would fall into a spiral, unraveling every single bit of progress that the world has made in the past thousands of years. The ones who survive would be the ones with survival skills. It would be that simple.

It was such a small part of the book that I’m not sure why I fixated on it so much. There was literally so much packed between the binding that any bit of this could have stood out. But I think the book was just so long that I couldn’t stop to ruminate on any piece of it.

Honestly, Mitchell wrote an outstanding novel. The stories and settings and characters weave together like tightly-knit fabric. You hardly know where one thread ends and another starts. I read through the Wikipedia overview before writing this post and there were actually bits and pieces that I missed, things I didn’t pick up on, connections I didn’t make because I wasn’t paying attention.

If you read this book, pay attention. Every little thing is important and has some meaning or implication for something else that may happen or may have already happened.

And for the record, a bone clock is the term that Atemporals use to refer to humans, who are born and die naturally, who don’t have powers of telepathy or “hiatus” or mind-erasing. In other words, we are the bone clocks.

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