In fact, it may not reveal anything at all. All it really can do is help illuminate a particular moment, where the novel's protagonist, Holly Sykes, is a teenager in Gravesend, England in the summer in 1984 who loves her rebellious, older boyfriend and considers Fear of Music one of the only necessary things to pack when she decides to run away from home. But then again, it also may call to mind another moment in 2044, where Holly is an old woman in a troubled world, and hearing “Memories Can't Wait” come on the radio hurts too much to listen to.
The Bone Clocks is comprised of such moments. They could be taken on their own and enjoyed as they are, removed of context almost like short stories or vignettes and they would almost feel complete. The novel's structure moves decade by decade, narrated from the perspective of a different character each time. But even within these chapters, there's a rich depth of memories shared, from the present to the near past to entirely different past lives. But while these bite-sized pieces are plenty tasty on their own, together they form a full course meal that aims for nothing less than a complete meditation on mortality, colonialism, ecological disaster, the afterlife, and the inescapable passage of time. It shouldn't work. It aims to be too many things at once – first-person character study, wacky fantasy, speculative fiction about the eventual effects of global warming and dwindling natural resources. The multiple identities the novel adopts should bump into each other and clash, and in a way they do. After all, Holly Sykes ages a lifetime throughout the book, and fifteen-year old Holly would undoubtedly clash with thirty-five year old Holly, who would be unable of comprehending fifty-five year old Holly. All these moments do feel odd in juxtaposition, but no more than the many diametrically opposed moments that make up any lifetime. In other words, it's a David Mitchell novel, and here the author of Cloud Atlas once again performs the minor miracle of taking enough ideas to fill twenty novels and puts them into one while somehow still feeling grounded.
That grounding works mostly because of Holly herself. When we first meet her as a teenager, she's the narrator, and her prose is delivered in a vernacular rich in unique observations and playful poetry that reflect a (to borrow a phrase from a character) “singular young” mind. She's also afflicted by psychic visions that suggest a deep fantasy world lying underneath what feels like a mostly realistic setting and character. This fantasy world comes shockingly out of nowhere in one scene, revealing a whole mysterious set of characters, powers, and terminology. But, just as unannounced as it came, that world suddenly disappears into the background as we once again focus on Holly and her other, more pressing concerns. We meet Holly again a bit into the next chapter, seen through the eyes of another, decidedly less likeable character. Holly's changed in this chapter, and she continues to change each time we catch up with her, as she experiences a lifetime of triumphs, tragedies, loves, loss, and hardships. And yet, even as her narrator voice sounds so different in the last chapter, it still feels like the same shrewd Holly we've known all along, looking for answers to the mysteries that have always been a part of her life.
Of course, those mysteries of the fantasy world have to get addressed at some point. Mitchell is content to keeping the book two-thirds grounded in the real world, which makes the fantasy elements stand out even more than they would otherwise. Everything comes to a head in the penultimate chapter, and the potential silliness of the whole book shines through. It seems to be a test of our willingness to accept this world, just as Holly is tested, that some of the most insightful and poignant moments of the whole book, where the effects of colonialism on the Noongar people of Australia in the 1800's get absurdly mashed into a chapter that reads like a slightly more adult version of Harry Potter. How well this works for you may vary according to taste, but for me it felt like a revealing display of Mitchell's power as a writer that at no point in any of this did the novel stop feeling as engrossing or as powerful as it had at any other point in the story.
It's important that, at least technically speaking, the novel moves forward in time from chapter to chapter, as the temporary nature of life is one of the big issues it addresses - “the bone clocks” of the title are mortal humans themselves, each moment bringing them closer to their eventual end; this is something that becomes more and more relevant to Holly as she ages and has other scrapes with death. But since part of the novel deals with ostensibly immortal beings, time is really a rather relative concept, and early parts of the novel that essentially feel like nonsense finally find an explanation later on. Given this, The Bone Clocks has tremendous re-readability. It may very well be my personal favorite book that I've read in years, and I will no doubt return to its particular, large world many times to both connect the dots between its interlocking narratives and simply bask in the multitude of perfectly encapsulated moments that make it up.
Listening to Talking Head's 'Fear of Music' won't reveal the entire meaning behind the impossibly vast scope of David Mitchell's