Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 15, 2022

The Bone Clocks (2014), by David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue (2020) has just been nominated for the Dublin Literary Award (and, yessss, it’s on my TBR), and by coincidence I’ve just finished reading The Bone Clocks. Which has a companion I now just have to read too, it’s called Slade House (2015)… and I’ve reserved it at the library so I’ll probably read that before I read Utopia Avenue.

Structured around several narratives, The Bone Clocks features the eternal existential battle between good and evil, and, as it should, it has an ending that leaves open the possibility that matters are not resolved. (Just like the ending of Star Wars, the original, which saw Darth Vader vanquished but not destroyed.)  Like Cloud Atlas, this novel is more, much more than the sum of its parts.

The Bone Clocks is the story of a succession of people from 1984 to 2043, all of them linked in some way to Holly Sykes, a 15-year old who storms out of the house in 1984 after a row with her mother and a double-betrayal. She’d stayed out overnight with her boyfriend, been given hell about that by her mother, and then ‘left home’ to make a new life with the boyfriend — who she finds in bed with her best friend.

On her way to what seems like a bleak future, she meets some helpful people, including a nice young man called Brendan who tells her about a fruit picking summer job he’d had during a university break.  She also meets a friendly couple who give her a bed for the night, but they get killed.

A lot of people get mysteriously killed, and one of them is probably Holly’s little brother Jason who goes missing at this time.

In 1991 the narrator is Hugo Lamb, a Hooray Henry who hangs around with other Cambridge undergraduates and beds women carelessly.  Like Holly he has inexplicable flashes of precognition and he experiences things that make no sense but it’s too soon for the reader to ‘join the dots’.  Instead we witness Hugo, untroubled by any moral scruples, constructing success from a middle-class background.  He has a contemptible strategy for enriching himself at the expense of a helpless old man, and his Swiss bank account grows in parallel with the number of friends he stitches up to lose at cards.  Just when it seems impossible to tolerate Hugo any longer, he has a crisis of conscience brought about by Holly Sykes, but this is subverted by his rescue from oblivion by agents of The Dark Side…

Suddenly it’s 2015, and Crispin Hershey is a failing writer, a one-hit wonder on the festival circuit.  (Mitchell has a lot of fun with this strand!) Crispin runs across Holly as the author of a bestseller about precognition, and is prepared to despise her, but he finds himself not doing that at all.  However, while not awful like Hugo, he is stupidly cruel.  Offended by a bad review which sunk his latest book, he sets up the reviewer for a revenge which goes further than he meant it to.  Although no one knows that he is responsible, he is plagued by guilt, and sets up a rescue campaign.  The problem is, of course, that there is one person who knows what Crispin has done.

The next section, in 2025 is where the battle between good versus evil comes into focus.  Strange events and phenomena are revealed when the Horologists (the good guys) meet to discuss Esther Little’s message from beyond the grave that they should mount a Second Mission to destroy the Anchorites (the bad guys).  The First Mission, five years ago, failed disastrously, leaving the Anchorites to continue with their dastardly methods of achieving immortality.  The Horologists, led by Marinus (who we’ve met before in different incarnations), need the cooperation of Holly — and she has had to put up with so many fraudsters since the publication of her book The Radio People, that she refuses to believe a thing that Marinus says.

The last section reminded me of the devastating landscape in Lucy Treloar’s Wolfe Island, (see my review).  It reveals in all its misery the compromised existence of life in a future world where climate change has conspired with political failure to destroy the world as we know it. Holly and her adopted family live in a part of an unrecognisable Ireland, governed by the Orwellian Stability regime. Holly has learned to ‘make and make do’ in a situation where they are sustained by ever-decreasing rations and what they can grow or catch for themselves.  All our easy ways of communication using phones and the internet are gone because the concept of governing for the public good and shared resources has gone.  As in most dystopias, there are frightening armed gangs preying on the vulnerable… and very little hope.

There are numerous very fine reviews that deconstruct this novel making links with Mitchell’s other fiction and his thematic concerns and influences.  These include James Wood’s at the New Yorker, and Julian Nowitz’s at The Sydney Review of Books and they are both examples of why professional criticism matters (and booklovers would do well to support it).  But for me, this was a grand story, from a master storyteller, and I loved it.

Author: David Mitchell
Title: The Bone Clocks
Publisher: Sceptre (Hodder & Stoughton), 2014
ISBN: 9780340921616, pbk., 595 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Kidna Books Hampton, $29.99


  1. I am always in awe of the number of books you not only read but also comment on


    • LOL Carmel, you’d probably also be in awe of the housework that doesn’t get done!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That sounds like I just read the summary of a new series, lots of action and adventure through time and the slow reveal if an interconnected plot.


    • Well, you are right, I think.. if you read those two reviews I linked to, they both say there are references weaving in and out of all his books and the different titles are connected.
      But although I’ve read almost every novel Mitchell has published, I’m not a scholar or a professional reviewer with a detailed knowledge of Mitchell’s work so most of the allusions they refer to passed me by. They say that the failed writer is modelled on Martin Amis, but I don’t know enough about the British lit scene in general or Martin Amis in particular to recognise it… he seems like a type to me, and we have that type here in Australia, though of course I shall name no names!


  3. This sounds excellent. I used to read Mitchell as he was published but I lost track of him. I have read Slade House though! I always seem to put off the bigger books in the TBR but I will go and dig this out, it sounds a great read.


  4. I had some very good advice early about Mitchell. Read him from the first he released and then one will get his uber novel pretences. FWIW I think Cloud Atlas verges on a masterpiece and this one not far behind. The other are all very good as well except………. Utopia Avenue. Found it a bit lacking for some reason. I think you will find Slade House a fine read Lisa. I look forward to your eventual review. I have a few reviews on GR if interested.


    • Hello, thanks for dropping by!
      I saw yours at GR, and also Paul Fulchers, which interested me because I follow his usually very perceptive reviews. But, not content with rating it only one-star, he went on to write a very negative review, which really surprised me.
      I agree about Cloud Atlas: I have a photo of myself with DM autographing it but the only thing I remember was how nice he was when I couldn’t stop gushing about how brilliant it was!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve only ever read Cloud atlas, which I did enjoy but for some reason it hasn’t stuck in my mind the way it has for come people. I should read more of him.

    You write great reviews Lisa, but I also like your point about the value of professional critics like those you name at the end. They add a depth that I certainly can’t aspire to, and are worth reading when one can find the time.


    • Thanks, Sue, TBH I’ve never aspired to being a professional critic or belonging to a literary clique of elites. I think the success of blogs like ours is that we are somewhere *between* gushing uncritically about books and the highly knowledgeable, sophisticated criticism that features in the ABR, for example.


  6. Like others, I always enjoy your reviews Lisa. I have read both “The Bone Clocks” and “Slade House” and thought they were both very good indeed. I do hope you enjoy “Slade House” when you get hold of it.


    • Thank you, Eleanor, that’s kind of you to say so. I picked up Slade House today and just as soon as I’ve finished reading Brian Nelson’s wonderful new translation of The Assommoir, I’ll be right into it!


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