It occurs to me that I don’t really know how to write about books. I can give a book a rating out of 5 stars, like I do on Goodreads, but that’s not really much in the way of articulating how I feel. The 5 stars I give to Infinite Jest and, say, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay are misleading in a way; both books are brilliant, but in different ways, and only one of those books was genuinely life-changing.
This is a roundabout way of saying that I finished reading The Bone Clocks yesterday, and I’m not sure I know how to talk about it. I mean: I loved it, I’ve been thinking about it non-stop, I didn’t want it to end and I kinda want to start reading it again immediately, etc. But that doesn’t actually explain anything to you. If you want the book’s plot, I’ll cut and paste from the publisher’s own copy, so that you’re only getting what they feel comfortable giving you:
Following a scalding row with her mother, fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes slams the door on her old life. But Holly is no typical teenage runaway: a sensitive child once contacted by voices she knew only as “the radio people,” Holly is a lightning rod for psychic phenomena. Now, as she wanders deeper into the English countryside, visions and coincidences reorder her reality until they assume the aura of a nightmare brought to life.
For Holly has caught the attention of a cabal of dangerous mystics—and their enemies. But her lost weekend is merely the prelude to a shocking disappearance that leaves her family irrevocably scarred. This unsolved mystery will echo through every decade of Holly’s life, affecting all the people Holly loves—even the ones who are not yet born.
A Cambridge scholarship boy grooming himself for wealth and influence, a conflicted father who feels alive only while reporting from occupied Iraq, a middle-aged writer mourning his exile from the bestseller list—all have a part to play in this surreal, invisible war on the margins of our world. From the medieval Swiss Alps to the nineteenth-century Australian bush, from a hotel in Shanghai to a Manhattan townhouse in the near future, their stories come together in moments of everyday grace and extraordinary wonder.
As with David Mitchell’s earlier Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks is a bit of a Russian nesting doll; stories are nestled inside of other stories, characters appear and disappear and are viewed through each other’s eyes; and minute details in the book’s very beginning are finally explained – resulting in literal jaw-dropping – at the book’s very end.
Cloud Atlas is an impressive and thought-provoking work, but it didn’t necessarily move me; I can see how some might be put off by the book’s conceit, or at least find the inter-connected stories a bit of a gimmick (even if it’s a gimmick that is extraordinarily well-crafted and presented with great skill). Bone Clocks moves in a similar way – if you’re familiar with Cloud Atlas, you can’t not see the relation – but the structure is an integral part of the story he’s telling, and it ends up making each narrative revelation feel, well, revelatory.
And yet, 24 hours after I put the book down, it’s the book’s ending that has me so swept away in emotion. The blurb above may talk about this age-old war between psychic, mystical beings, but it’s the very human characters that drive the narrative forward. Each section of the book is narrated in the first person by a different character, and within a few sentences I immediately knew who these people were, and where they were, and how they interacted with the world (not to mention the all-important when).
I can’t talk about the ending except that it moved me in a way that very few books have ever done. The story might have the trappings of science fiction, but there are very powerful, real emotions at play, and the ending is heartbreaking in all the right ways.
I said before that I’ve been on a remarkably good run regarding the last few books I’ve read – and I’d just finished reading the excellent Wolf in White Van before starting this one – but this is one of the best books I’ve read in quite a long time. If you’ve read it, I’m happy to discuss it in the comments below; if you haven’t, I heartily recommend that you start immediately.