See how the light needs shadows


The Bone Clocks
by David Mitchell

It’s almost two weeks since I finished this book, and the more I reflect on it the higher it ranks in my esteem. It’s definitely a book that rewards giving it some thinking time.

If you’ve read any of Mitchell’s first three books (Ghostwritten, number9dream and Cloud Atlas) then this new release will feel familiar, and not just because of the direct references to characters, places and things in those books. This has actually been true of all Mitchell’s books but never quite so clearly as here. He has been world-building for five novels and now he’s capitalising on it with a glorious plot that combines the best of all that has gone before and throws in some brand new magic.

“Empires die, like all of us dancers in the strobe-lit dark. See how the light needs shadows. Look: wrinkles spread like mildew over our peachy sheen; beat-by-beat-by-beat-by-beat-by-beat-by-beat, varicose veins worm through plucked calves; torsos and breasts fatten and sag…as last year’s song hurtles into next year’s song and the year after that, and the dancers’ hairstyles frost, wither and fall in irradiated tufts…”

As I mentioned in my write-up of David Mitchell’s talk at Bristol Festival of Ideas last week, it would be very easy to spoil this plot by saying too much, so I’m going to try very hard not to do that.

The Bone Clocks opens with teenager Holly Sykes having a really rubbish day. She starts off pretty annoying, as indeed most teenagers are, but as events continue to go badly for her, I realised I must have warmed to her because I really did care how things were going to turn out. It’s 1984 on the Kent—Essex border and though Holly mentions punk music and the miners strike, she doesn’t need to because the setting is so very alive. Holly’s parents own a pub and in reading about it I pictured all those small town pubs from my own childhood.

There are hints of something fantastical in the background, that this isn’t just a realistic story about a 15-year-old who’s had a massive fight with her mam, but Mitchell keeps these hints simmering slowly. It’s a tactic that for me paid off brilliantly, as it kept me reading even when the narrator switched to a whole new person and story that once again I needed to warm up to.

“Grey comes in through the cracks, birdsong too, and the sound of a lorry passing overheard, and a sharp pain from a knocked ankle, and I’m crouching on the concrete ground of an underpass, just a few yards from the exit. A breeze that smells of car-fumes washes over my face, and it’s over, my daymare, my vision, my whatever-it-was, is over.”

As always, Mitchell’s style is very readable and enjoyable. There’s plenty of humour to balance out the occasionally tough topics addressed. But key to what makes this such a good read is that every character is a rounded, believable person and though there are a few clear heroes and villains, even they can’t be relied on to be wholly good or bad.

Published 2014 by Sceptre.

Source: Waterstones.

The Bone Clocks

David Mitchell
(CC BY Kubik)

David Mitchell
Watershed, 12 November

I’m a David Mitchell fan. This fact crept up on me somewhat. Selecting which book to take for him to sign at a talk on Wednesday, I realised that not only do I own – and have read – all his books, but the last three I’ve bought in hardback pretty soon after their release. That I’ve loved them all goes without saying – why else would I keep on spending extra on them – but I do feel bad that I forgot to say that to Mitchell himself, it seems like something I should have said.

I should clarify for fellow Brits that I am talking here about the novelist David Mitchell, not the comedian David Mitchell. They’ve both written books, they’re both great and they’re both touring the West Country this week, so I’d understand any confusion.

Mitchell started by talking about his new book The Bone Clocks (which I finished reading last weekend – my review will follow soon). He says the idea for it grew from his own sense of his mortality as he reached his mid-40s, and death certainly is a recurring theme. This time, the structure is the seven ages of man, each set in a different decade and each having a different style of writing (though that makes it sound more experimental and disjointed than it is – this a coherent novel with distinct sections).

There was quite a lot of discussion of The Bone Clocks that on reflection was a bit spoilery, so I won’t share too much of that. But Mitchell did talk about several overarching themes in all his books, such as alienation and difficulty communicating, which comes from a combination of his having a stammer as a child and his years living in Japan. He discussed how he writes all his books as a series of novellas, or long short stories, with the links between them being closer and more blurred in some cases (such as Black Swan Green) than others (say, Ghostwritten). He also acknowledged the growing “uber book” that is the world in which all his novels are set. This world-building, in which not only characters but also things from previous books reappear, started out of a sense of mischief but he soon saw that it has a certain utility – it enables improbable events to become believable and adds a sense of reality, because what is familiar feels real.

When asked about specific reactions to his book, Mitchell replied “in the same way that you can’t successfully tickle yourself, you are immune to your tricks” as a writer, i.e. he’s never read his books as a reader. (He similarly fobbed off questions about genre, saying – quite rightly – that it’s not up to him to label his books.) But when reading other people’s books, he appreciates being pulled along or swept up by them. He made the important point that pace isn’t just plot – you have to have a connection with the characters to be swept up in a book and plot is the enabler of this connection. I’d say this awareness certainly shows in his work.

Mitchell also talked about creating a sense of place. His books have been set all over the world, often in multiple locations, but they are always strongly placed. He said that writers are effectively location scouts, but also that “it’s my job to convince you that I’ve been there” – a job that can involve intensive research or a quick visit with his trusty notebook.

After a mini love-in for Ursula le Guin, Mitchell listed his other favourite authors as Halldór Laxness, Anton Chekhov, Marilynne Robinson and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, which is a suitably international top five for such a well-travelled man!

Finally, Mitchell revealed that he is working on a book largely set in 1960s London and New York, due for publication in 2016. And even more excitingly, he has written a short novel (his first short book!) as a spin-off from The Bone Clocks and that will be published in 2015. It’s clearly a great time to be a David Mitchell fan.

This event was part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas.

A thing of beauty

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell

I bought this book the day it came out. I never do that, but I have loved all of Mitchell’s previous books so I went to Waterstones and walked home with it, lovingly stroking the exquisitely designed cover. I started reading it that night. And yet here we are months later and I’ve only just finished. So what happened?

Well, first of all, this is a beautiful book. Physically beautiful, I mean. So I didn’t want to carry it around with me and risk damaging it. The hardback is clothbound, illustrated with a picture of Japan, highlighted in blue glitter. The endpapers continue the theme, with Japanese-style artwork in blue and white.

And it’s definitely well written. Mitchell weaves a spellbinding story, with a huge cast and what I think – though I’m not certain about this – is some serious attention to historical detail. When you get caught up in a big, complex plot it’s easy to not notice the writing but Mitchell’s writing is as excellent as ever. But it did take me a while to get into.

This isn’t a book to read for 5 minutes here and there, with another book in your handbag and a third one at work, which is what I tried doing. The opening section is set at sea and between the 18th century seafaring vernacular and large cast I struggled a bit. I even put it down for a few weeks at one point. Once the action moved to the book’s main location – Dejima – I settled in and found myself hooked.

The setting is fascinating, historically and geographically – the Japanese port of Dejima, near Nagasaki, in 1799. At that time it was the location of isolationist Japan’s only link to the west – a trade post of the Dutch East Indies Company. Dejima is almost an island, separated from mainland Japan by a well guarded gate that Dutch visitors may only pass through with special permission, which is rarely granted. Dejima is occupied year-round by a handful of employees of the Dutch East Indies Company, charged with keeping the Dutch warehouses and their goods safe between trading seasons.

The book’s hero, Jacob de Zoet, is a clerk who has reluctantly agreed to come to Japan to earn enough money and raise his social standing enough to marry the woman he loves, Anna. He has a five-year contract with the Dutch East Indies Company and must spend those five years in Dejima, stranded between trading seasons with the limited European staff and their liaison with Japan – the official translators.

Much of the detail of this book – and the humour – derives from the cultural and linguistic divisions between the characters. Mitchell does a fantastic job of the scenes where two or three languages are being spoken, none of them English, and you know who is speaking which language and who understands which parts of the conversation. It’s masterful, I think.

There’s a lot of mistrust and resentment between the different races depicted but there’s also sharing of knowledge. One of my favourite characters, Dr Marinus, is a Dutchman who has settled on Dejima and trains Japanese apprentices in the art and science of “Dutch medicine”. The Dutch tradeship brings him new European textbooks every year, which he studies and shares through the translators. He attends meetings of Japanese scholars where the men debate scientific progress, philosophy and politics, including the wisdom of Japan remaining isolationist. I loved these scenes and would have liked more of them.

This large book encompasses many things – there’s humorous stories of daily life, the personal and public ups and downs of Jacob de Zoet, philosophical discussion, great adventures and mysterious evildoers (particularly in the middle section in which Jacob hardly appears), and also romance. Jacob is certainly in love with his Anna but there is also a young Japanese midwife who catches his eye, making him question his allegiances.

I’m glad I persevered with this book because it became something quite extraordinary. It is as exotic, remarkable and rich in detail as its beautiful cover suggests.

For an alternative viewpoint, check out these reviews by Leeswammes and Farm Lane Books.

Published 2010 by Sceptre.
ISBN 978-0-3409-2156-2