Last night, I finished David Mitchell's book The Bone Clocks, a long (621 pages), sprawling speculative fiction novel following the life of Holly Sykes, a Londoner with some very odd special powers.
The story spans sixty years and is split into six sections, starting with Holly as a teenager in Gravesend, about to run away to join her ne'er-do-well boyfriend. Holly's abilities -- which at this point she understands only poorly -- manifest as hearing what she calls "the Radio People," voices in her head that give her strange, and sometimes dangerous, messages. She suddenly loses her capacity after a visit to a Dr. Marinus, but realizes that the weirdness isn't over when she meets an old woman named Esther Little who asks Holly to promise her sanctuary if things go awry.
Which they do. Holly witnesses two horrific murders and flees, and recognizes that her psychic powers, and Esther's request, have ensnared her in a global war between two rival factions of immortals -- the Horologists and the Anchorites.
Each section features a new point-of-view character -- college student Hugo Lamb, war journalist Ed Brubeck, novelist Crispin Hershey, Dr. Marinus, and in the final section, back to Holly Sykes. Holly herself is the common thread in each section, providing a link between the different characters and places.
The tale is deftly told, and contains vivid imagery and well-delineated characters. Mitchell's writing is lyrical and often beautiful. Ultimately, though, the novel doesn't work -- partly because two of the point-of-view characters are so thoroughly unlikeable, but mostly because the actual story arc (the war between the Horologists and the Anchorites, and Holly's role therein) comprises so little of the book. The fifth section is the dramatic climax of the novel, and in the sixth it flounders into page after page of cautionary prose about the potential chaos unleashed by climate change and environmental devastation. I've nothing against a good post-apocalyptic story, mind you; but that isn't what The Bone Clocks set out to do, and the entire sixth section feels like a preachy, depressing anticlimax. A weak nod in the last few pages to the battle between the two factions of immortals at least draws the final section into the rest of the narrative, but you get the impression that Mitchell didn't know when to stop writing and stamp "The End" on the manuscript.
I wouldn't say I disliked The Bone Clocks; it kept me reading. The basic idea was compelling, and the mysterious undercurrents of the story had all of the best features of speculative fiction. But the novel's unwarranted length, and especially its disappointing sixth section, left me feeling like the concept fell far short of achieving its full potential.