David Mitchell returns with a familiar device and many familiar names. In fact, The Bone Clocks should be a very familiar book to those already acquainted with Mitchell's writing. I'd like to say Mitchell does something extraordinary here, but mostly what he does is rehash his success. The Bone Clocks bears much similarity to Mitchell's first novel, Ghostwritten. The same structure of episodic stories following different characters around the globe and through the years is at play here. The connecting piece in The Bone Clocks is the character of Holly Sykes. The theme of incorporeals migrating from one body to another is used again. Despite the lack of original material—in the world that is David Mitchell—it is fun to once again to visit Mitchell's universe and see it all being put together.
If you've read more than one David Mitchell novel, you probably know that Mitchell likes to tie his stories and novels together. I read an interview with him where he described all of his works coming together to create an über-novel. Some may find the concept a bit too heavy of a ploy, but I love it. It's fun to play the “who's who” game when reading Mitchell. Of all of Mitchell's novels, The Bone Clocks works the hardest to bring all these pieces together. I counted six characters from previous Mitchell novels who made direct appearances (in one form or another). Add to that another five who were mentioned, and other characters who are likely descendents of characters we've met before. (And I'm sure I missed some.) Perhaps it was a bit too much, but it was fun. (Were there any references to number9dream? It was the only novel I couldn't make a connection to.)
What makes The Bone Clocks different from Mitchell's previous novels is the amount of paranormal fantasy. Sure, it's there to some extent in all of Mitchell's work, but he definitely turns it up a couple notches here. I don't think I'm too far from reason when I say that it felt like a collaborative effort with Stephen King. And when the novel was hitting its climax in Part 5, it was straight up Ghostbusters 2—creepy Vigo portrait and all. The action was all over the place and I had trouble following everything that was going on. Personally, I thought this added tension was over the top; I'd have preferred the novel stick with the momentum it had established in the first four sections.
The first two-thirds of The Bone Clocks is great. It really hits its stride by the second story and really moves in the third and fourth. Even though everything that happens in those four stories adds up to the fifth, that fifth almost felt like a completely different novel. And then the sixth—well, it seemed more like an afterthought. I imagine Mitchell sitting back after completing the novel and realizing—with horror—that he didn't include a futuristic scene where our dependence on technology has become our demise (see also Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas, “The Siphoners”). “Wait, everyone, we need all the characters to come back for one final scene.” Sure, it brings together some of the unresolved issues, but it did so with such an inorganic feel. I think this novel would've been better served with a different finale and saving this one for a short story down the line.
I don't know what else to say about this one—perhaps I've already said too much. I know there's been tremendous hype surrounding this one, but I'd personally put it in the bottom half of Mitchell's bibliography. That being said, it's good, even great at times. But with all the connections and callbacks to previous works, I think it's better to make your way through those first, if you haven't already.