Thursday 12 December 2019

Books: A blockbuster that doesn't know when to end

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks, Sceptre, €28.99

PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE: Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in the 2012 film of David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas’
PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE: Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in the 2012 film of David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas’

JP O' Malley

Back in the summer of 1984, Holly Sykes was a 15-year-old tearaway desperately seeking to leave her childhood behind. The problems she faced were fairly typical for a girl her age: a resentfulness against her parents; boyfriend trouble; an allergy to curfews, and a desire to escape the everyday boredom of suburban life in her hometown of Gravesend, Kent.

But Holly's desire for ultimate freedom came at a price.The day she ran away from her parents' pub, The Captain Marlow, in search of adventure, everything changed. Her younger brother, Jacko, mysteriously went missing and his body was never found. Holly has been racked with guilt ever since. But perhaps these strange events have something to do with the hallucinations or 'daymares' that Holly has been experiencing since early childhood ? During these blackouts she possesses psychic powers and watches terrible events unfolding before they happen in real time.

Her Irish great-Aunt Eilish refers to this special gift as 'the cluas faoi rún', which translates as 'the secret ear'.

During these other-worldly moments Holly converses with 'the Radio People': this also happens to be the name of a best-selling book she writes - later on - about this part of her life she has never fully understood. Deep down, however, Holly knows there has to be some connection between her contact with the spiritual world and the disappearance of her younger brother.

This is a very brief introduction to the basic plot structure of David Mitchell's new novel, The Bone Clocks. Stretching to nearly 600 pages in length, Mitchell's labyrinthe-like-story is set over 59 years: beginning in 1984 and concluding in 2043. And the action-packed adventures happen across numerous countries, including: Britain, Ireland, Columbia, China, Iceland, America and Canada.

The novel is split into six main narratives: all of them are told in the present tense and in the first person. But all roads eventually lead back to Holly's story. Mitchell works from the same game plan here that have made his previous novels- like Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten and Black Swan Green - such a spectacular international success. And plotting is clearly the greatest piece of armour that the British author holds in his arsenal.

The book's revelatory moment comes about 400 pages in: when Holly enters into an eerie New York brownstone and finally begins to understand the connection between her special gift, and what actually happened to her brother, Jacko, that strange June evening back in 1984.

Eventually we also learn that some protagonists, who we originally believed to be normal human beings, are actually ghosts from another lifetime. When Mitchell is specifically focusing on this fantasy genre - where his spellbinding child-like imagination knows no boundaries - the pages almost turn themselves and the novel moves with a rhythm that is both lucid and consistent at the same time.

But his insistence to keep diversifying his style with every chapter creates severe problems. For example, he often moves, in the space of just a few pages, between an epic-fantasy mode - in the same vain as say, Dan Brown or JK Rowling - to then suddenly U-turn back to straightforward naturalism, without so much as flinching. One can almost sense a kind of showiness to this curious habit of genre swapping. But the quality of the writing deteriorates in this disruptive and haphazard process.

Moreover, there are story-lines here that sometimes go on for nearly 100 pages, which, for much of the time, don't seem to have any connection to the central plot line. This seems like a strange move on the author's part, when plot is the novel's most important asset.

For example, the chapter narrated by Holly's husband Ed, a British journalist working in Iraq, attempts to give the reader a lesson in political and moral philosophy, just for the hell of it. This constant veering down side avenues, where Mitchell begins, half heartedly, to throw opinions about politics and the environment into the mix, seems like a wasted effort, especially when these sub plots have nothing to do with the main story and he never returns to them again. That said, The Bone Clocks is still the kind of book that will appeal to mainstream reading audiences, as well as more cult-ish fans: who will consider this a great work of of literary fiction. A subject I believe is up for debate.

Despite these ongoing arguments, this latest novel does prove that Mitchell is an extremely talented writer with an exceptional ability to tell stories that allow us to escape from the quotidian of everyday life. And nobody should question his ability to produce wonderful imaginative prose that sparkles and entertains simultaneously.

But one of the literary greats of his generation? That term may be just a little bit too flattering.

Sunday Independent

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