The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks book cover


“It’s grief for the regions we deadlanded, the ice caps we melted, the Gulf Stream we redirected, the rivers we drained, the coasts we flooded, the lakes we choked with crap, the seas we killed, the species we drove to extinction, the pollinators we wiped out, the oil we squandered, the drugs we rendered impotent, the comforting liars we voted into office–all so we didn’t have to change our cozy lifestyles. People talk about the Endarkenment like our ancestors talked about the Black Death, as if it’s an act of God. But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burned our way through. My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of the Earth’s Riches knowing–while denying–that we’d be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid.”   The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell

I debated whether or not to write a post about The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. At least twice, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to finish reading it, but I’d already invested several hours in the book, so I kept on when the going got tough. In the end, I’m glad I finished The Bone Clocks. I think it’s worth writing about here, even though I don’t pretend to grasp its full meaning.

I’d picked up The Bone Clocks in the first place because it’s been called a genre-bending novel by a writer who’s reinventing fiction, so I wanted to find out what David Mitchell and his work is all about. It’s nearly impossible to summarize the plot of The Bone Clocks, which blends literary fiction with fantasy (not a genre I’m attracted to) and dystopian literature. There are six linked novella-type sections that take place in 1984, 1991, 2004, 2015, 2025, and 2043 (with flashbacks to medieval and other times) in settings as diverse as Ireland, New York, Iraq, England, Switzerland, Australia, and Iceland.

Among the half a dozen or so featured characters, apparently a couple of them have appeared in Mitchell’s past novels, including Cloud Atlas, none of which I’ve read. Holly Sykes is the highly appealing central character, and she is largely what kept me going when I wanted to stop, although I found many of the other characters arresting as well.

The fantasy thread features Horologists, a select group of immortal people battling the evil Anchorites, who suck the souls from people to stay alive. “A Horologist’s Labyrinth” is the section of the novel fully devoted to the final battle between the Horologists and the Anchorites–by far the most irritating part of the book, for me. I don’t like fantasy to begin with, and this section seemed to be poorly written, especially considering the brilliance of the rest of the book, although one critic pointed out we’re not to view it as serious fantasy, but rather a tongue-in-cheek portrayal.

I’m not even sure I understand why the fantasy element is present, though I know Mitchell sees it as central to his theme. The bone clocks are mortal and often foolish humans who inevitably age, decline, and die; they are contrasted with the brilliant, wise and immortal Horologists. I refer you to critics and reviewers in the mainstream publications who do a much better job of “figuring out” The Bone Clocks, especially if you’re interested in finding out more about the fantasy elements. Much of this aspect of the novel is simply over my head.

I’m not familiar with British and Irish slang from the 1980s, and so getting started was difficult–the first section depicts Holly as a runaway teenager from a working class English town. Despite all these difficulties, the The Bone Clocks marathon has a tremendous momentum, and for long sections I was riveted. Here, I want to focus on the dystopian final section of the book.

What an incredible life journey Holly Sykes has, but its end is devastating. Mitchell’s version of dystopia, while not especially original or inventive, is nonetheless disturbing. It is the time of the Endarkenment. Humanity is on its last legs. Holly knows one big storm is all it will take to finish off her rural Irish village. She’s living in poverty, with little food, minimal electricity and no internet, in a world ruled by the Chinese and a society that has all but disintegrated.

I read The Bone Clocks during a long, record-breaking deep freeze. Boston, where life seems to have stopped, is in dire straits: snow removal costs have gone over budget by millions, people can’t get to work, schools are closed, businesses are suffering, and the subway system is all but shut down.

We live in a country where many people do not believe in climate change or evolution or vaccines.

My Ohio hometown is a shadow of its former self, mired in poverty and crime. The governor boasts about balancing the state budget, but at the expense of towns starved for funds.

A member of my family is getting expensive medical treatment that, if not for insurance, would mean bankruptcy. And yet, many of our government leaders are determined to take affordable health insurance away from millions of poor and middle class families.

I went to a grocery store yesterday that had only two clerks at the check-out. At the dozen or so self-check-out stations, customers struggled with an automated system that doesn’t work. The store was crowded with people wanting to stock up during the bad weather but, according to the wonderful check-out clerk who helped me, the management would not call for extra help. God forbid this large grocery chain cut into its profits to gainfully employ a few more people or, at least, make sure the stores are adequately staffed.

Could we someday find ourselves in our own Endarkenment? Are we headed in that direction? In The Bone Clocks, when the Endarkenment came, it came fast.

The Bone Clocks isn’t an easy read. If you’re intrigued, if you like challenges, if you want a taste of cutting edge fiction by one of the world’s most highly acclaimed authors, then go for it.

Have you read The Bone Clocks? What do you think of dystopian fiction? Do you see parallels with our current state of affairs, or do you think that’s taking dystopian fiction too seriously?

By the way, you’ll notice a Henrietta Public Library sticker on the cover of The Bone Clocks in the photo above. I want to give a shout out to Henrietta Public Library, which is wonderful, and its dynamic director, Adrienne Furness, who was on the 2015 Caldecott Medal Selection Committee.

10 thoughts on “The Bone Clocks”

  1. Endarkenment was a phrase coined by metaphysical guru, Stuart Wilde, who passed in
    Ireland in 2013. Wilde was a very influential cult-leader in the 1980s. The deeper
    he spiralled into his own nihilistic pathology, the more he promoted entrenched
    white male imperialism.

    Mitchell is simply reframing the cult-beliefs of Wilde and the book glitterati think
    it is a new genre!!


    1. I had no idea about this reference. Thanks so much for telling us about this. If you happen to read The Bone Clocks I’d love to know more, as I know I missed a lot of these references and the underlying satire.

  2. I’m glad that this book is out there, another warning for complacent people. I won’t read it, though. I’m already well convinced we are looking at a grim future if we don’t change course. As for your indictment of the status quo, I agree with you 100%. I do my best to look for signs of hope. What part of Ohio are you from? Judy is originally from Springfield, near Dayton.

    1. I’m from a town just east of Cleveland. Grew up there, went to college in Marietta. I had cousins in Illinois, every other summer or so we visited Rockford, but I didn’t get to know the Chicago area much. My son, who attends U. of Cincinnati, loves your city. Moving forward with my blog, I hope to feature more writers such as Wendell Berry, etc who are so eloquent about how we can change the status quo. I appreciate your words of agreement.

  3. Aw, thanks for the shoutout.

    I have thought about reading the Bone Clocks, but then it seems like a big investment. Your review intrigues me, though. I used to be a big reader of dystopias, but I find I’ve read them less over the last few years. I’m very interested in Station Eleven, which several colleagues have read and raved about.

  4. Wonderful review, Valorie. I have seen books which combine modern, future and historical time periods, but combining fantasy in that is odd to me. I don’t know why Mitchell did that. I liked that passage that you have quoted, especially the last sentence – “My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless… –while denying–that we’d be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid.” Very scary. Your description of Boston and your hometown in Ohio sounds quite scary. I hope things get better soon. That word ‘Endarkenment’ makes me shiver. I hope the world doesn’t come to that. Thanks for this wonderful review, Valorie.

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