Reading David Mitchell’s Slade House a couple months ago sent me back to the library to find a copy of The Bone Clocks to learn more about the strange world of the Deep Stream and the Shaded Way and people who leapfrog through time. Unfortunately, reading The Bone Clocks was a long exercise in frustration. Slade House was a wonderful example of literary horror, but The Bone Clocks makes me think that Mitchell should take more of a lesson from genre writers about narrator selection and pacing before he writes another literary/genre book. Because I enjoyed Cloud Atlas and Slade House so very much, hope strung me along through the entire 600+ pages of The Bone Clocks; I kept waiting and waiting for the book to get good.
The Bone Clocks spans about 40 years of history, from the mid-1980s through political and ecological collapse in the mid-2040s. The novel begins and ends with Holly Sykes. In the mid-1980s, she is an angry teenager who runs away from home. Holly had some odd experiences when she was younger—hearing people who weren’t there, being visited by a woman who wasn’t there—but things get really weird as she tries to find a place to stay. There are hints dropped about two opposing sides at war. Holly is briefly caught up in some psychic combat before returning to her life as a prickly teen.
It’s not until many, many pages later that the war between the Deep Stream (the good guys) and the Shaded Way (the bad guys) resumes. Until that war resumes, we are treated to the perspectives of Holly’s partner—a war correspondent—and her midlife friend—a washed up writer. I have no idea what these two narrators contributed to the story. All the action was clearly happening somewhere else, to other people.
When the war does resume, everything happens too fast and there are too many wise old characters sharing history and exposition left and right. Info-dumping is one of the chief complaints readers have about genre fiction and it is bad in this part of The Bone Clocks. I am surprised that a writer who did so well with multiple narrators and epically scaled stories stumbled so badly with The Bone Clocks.
After the climax of the war between the Shaded Way and the Deep Stream, this book still isn’t over. There’s a long epilogue in which we return to Holly’s life, long after she got caught up in the fight. I didn’t see the purpose of this part of the novel, either. If The Bone Clocks had been narrated solely by Holly or Marinus (or narrated by the two of them in turns), I think the book would have been fantastic. Instead, I got frustrated waiting for Holly or Marinus or even Hugo to pop up again and take me back to what I saw as the main action.
I am really disappointed by this book.