|Even the cover is mysterious and beautiful...|
Steaming through the Booker long-list can sometimes be a lot of work.
Some books are too huge to be read and reviewed swiftly, yet some are structured in such a way as to conveniently let you review their constituent parts.
Thus, in the manner of Den of Geek reviewing a few episodes of a TV series, I am going to give you my first impressions of the first three "episodes" of David Mitchell's forth-coming Booker-longlisted novel The Bone Clocks.
I've always felt an odd affinity with Mitchell because we both began our careers working in Waterstone's in Canterbury, though separated by a decade or so. Tim Waterstone once remarked that Mitchell "isn't as clever as he thinks he is", which may be true, but he remains infinitely cleverer, and a far better novelist, than our former CEO.
Anyway, that's enough 'inside baseball'. Beware spoilers, all ye who glance below this point...
A Hot Spell
The Bone Clocks begins in 1984, and schoolgirl Holly Sykes is about to have a very bad day. New boyfriend Vincent Costello lets her down in the worst - albeit the most obvious and leadenly signposted - way, and the only obvious course of action for young Holly is to run away from home. What follows is a 24-like real-time odyssey across Kent as Holly enjoys some increasingly weird encounters with school friend Ed Brubeck, the enigmatic Esther Little, stereotypical 80's lefties Heidi and Ian, and a mysterious killer, before finding gainful employment picking strawberries. Just when she's settling into a new identity her past catches up with her and drags her back to reality...
Expect Mitchell's typically muscular, captivating prose, pulling you through a narrative which reads like Black Swan Green having a violent fight with Cloud Atlas. If you want to know which genre we're in, it's vaguely SF or so it appears right now. This is occasionally jarring, especially coming so thick and fast in the opening episode. It's a bit like a Neil Gaiman story so far, if you can imagine a suddenly very heavily literary Neil Gaiman...As the episode finishes, you definitely need to know what the hell is going on here, and you're mercilessly hooked.
Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume
The second episode leaps us forward to 1991. Like Caitlyn Moran has just done in her novel How To Build A Girl, the 1991ness is established by characters listening to Nirvana and watching Twin Peaks. Lazy: I can't argue about the TV choice, but I think Use Your Illusion I and II were much more important records of the era. And so was 30-Something. But I digress.
We are now in the narrative company of Hugo Lamb, an irresistible little rogue, rich Cambridge undergraduate, sexual adventurer, cad, and bounder. Lamb's story begins with a baffling encounter with the enigmatic Immaculee Constantin, then we detour to his college get-rich-quick scams, his home life and family, there's an audacious link to Black Swan Green, we discover his criminal alter ego Marcus Anyder, before jetting off for a spot of skiing in Sainte-Agnes with a fairly repellent group of his appalling, loaded acolytes. They proceed to ski, drink and whore their way around the New Year break, but Hugo falls in love with the barmaid at their apres-ski watering hole, the spiky, aloof and somewhat damaged Holly Sykes. But when he's presented with a clear choice, Hugo must choose between Holly and the mysteries offered to him by our surreal friends from outside our reality, who are known as the Anchorites...
Hugo is one of Mitchell's very strongest characters to date and this episode is perhaps his finest chunk of prose, wholly engrossing and ferociously readable. The Anchorites (clearly the book's 'villains' and the architects of Holly's weird encounters in episode one) are suitably bizarre and menacing, and it's somewhere amid this section that you find yourself really falling in love with The Bone Clocks.
The Wedding Bash
Episode three is set in 2004 at the wedding of Pete and Sharon, the younger sister of Holly Sykes, who is in attendance with her daughter Aoife (your guess is as good as mine) and the father, Holly's life partner, Ed Brubeck, who has somehow ended up as a war journalist, on leave from a stint covering the occupation of Iraq. Walking on the pier the morning of the big day, a chance encounter with Immaculee Constantin is soon forgotten, then Aoife is distraught when Ed refuses to let her visit the showman psychic Dwight Silverwind, who Ed rightly dismisses as a miserable fraud. As the day unfolds tension arises in the family: Holly wants Ed to leave the paper and leave war zones. Ed, with a fresh commission in his pocket wonders if it's actually something he can give up, especially as his own recent harrowing experiences in Baghdad have left him emotionally indebted to two heroic victims of terrorism. When Aoife goes missing, the Sykes family are devastated by a familiar dread, but it is forces from outside our reality who intercede to help Ed on his race-against-time search.
We're on slightly steadier ground in this episode, the Middle East scenes bristle with terrible authenticity and the Wedding-day scenes read like a domestic thriller. There seems to be very little SF or fantasy at work in this section, until we get to the point where it suddenly definitely is. And at the end of this section you're left wondering - will Holly keep Ed? And beyond that - what on Earth is going on?
Well, there are three episodes left for the story to unfold, three more leaps into the future (it does feel a little Cloud Atlas, all this leaping about, and it'll only feel more so as we go into the future I suspect) but it would appear we're following Holly, and these Anchorites who are always hovering on the periphery of her life.
The experience of reading this book is richer than the experience of reading your average novel, as you'll know if you've read any of Mitchell's stellar fiction. Though I'm dubious about the Booker judges ever awarding the prize to a work of urban fantasy, (which this damn well is) Mitchell seems to be pulling off something magnificent here.
If the second half of this book is as good as the first, then we can possibly call off the search for 2014's best novel...