An unwitting pawn

“What is born must one day die. So says the contract of life, yet I am here to tell you, however, that in rare instances this iron clause may be rewritten.” The blurb says it all. David Mitchell’s latest tome, The Bone Clocks, is a rollercoaster ride through mindscapes in a multilayered time travel.

Ordinary and the humdrum co-exist with the supranatural and uncanny in this vintage Mitchellian tapestry of fantasy, dystopia and apocalyptic vision.

Here, souls talk to each other across centuries. Emissaries arrive from the nether regions of mind, visitors have strange errands to do and the quotidian throbs with the magical, the eerie and the eccentric at every moment. Spirits nest in each other’s memories, powerful minds erase memories, leaving behind craters in consciousness. Mitchell creates a new linguistic universe while exploring the myriad ways in which forces of life and death choose certain host bodies to fight their eternal battle to temporary ending.

This Faustian drama enacted within the delicate and highly intuitive psyche of a 15-year-old Holly Sykes, grows into her wizened, aging body through perilous encounters and inner workings of her mind. It keeps you going by its leaps of imagination, stylistic brilliance and its panoramic, temporal and spatial sweep.

Holly begins her narrative journey as an ordinary runaway girl, fleeing a heartbreak and a domestic squabble with her mother, which is a regular fare in any teenager’s life. Shades of Jane Eyre, Joan of Arc and Huck Finn merge in Holly Sykes for many pages, but slowly Sykes acquires her own idiosyncrasies. With all the usual rage and tears of a young girl, growing up in middle class milieu of Thatcherite Britain, she suddenly sees herself in the midst of daymares, visions and voices.

An inconsequential friendly chat on socialist politics turns, in one flash, into a bloody scene of epic vengeance and paranormal activity. It takes a while for the unsuspecting reader to get under the skin of the novel, for this skin is palimpsestic to say the least. Lives are scripted with a lethal inevitability and you are driven to safety through the powers of precognition.

Mitchell spins his own private mythology as before and he milks the treasures of the world imagination to populate his worlds of angels and demons. Here, spirits transmigrate through continents to nest in the dying bodies of seven-year-olds, and that is how Holly’s little brother Jacko manifests a mysterious knowledge of Chinese culture and labyrinthine messages. The narrative weaves in and out of centuries and continents with such effortless ease and spontaneity that it leaves you breathless, curious and panting till just before the last section.

Apparently disconnected fragments coalesce into an intriguing pattern as the plot winds itself around the battle between the Atemporals and the Anchorites. The latter preys on souls and the former rescues them from the deadly clutches. And, why is one more lethal than the other? Linear perception is trashed as the narration swings back and forth through kinships forged across centuries of rapport,     séance and suasions.

The soulful partnership of Marinus, who perches in several bodies, and Holly is both spooky and consoling. Mitchell has mined the world memory for varied cultural motifs, his multiple narrative strands thread their ways from England to New york through Shanghai to Ireland and Iceland.

This vision that culminates in 2043 harbours utopian flashes within a predatory age of ‘endarkenment’ that awaits us, where all forms of technology have broken down, energy reservoir has depleted and humanity has scripted its own destruction with enviable precision.  Holly is a contemporary Cassandra who intuits many of the tragedies, this total breakdown, but is pathetically unable to pre-empt any.

The reader is on the edge as she juggles time zones, but there are intervals of paralysing normalcy, which is a relief to the mind. Author Crispin Hershey’s descent into ugly vengeance that lands his reviewer in prison is a brilliant satire on the dog-eat-dog lives and narcissism of wannabe men and women of letters. And war junkie Ed Brubeck’s flirtation with the dangers and griefs of war bring home the numbing realities of the ‘normal’ in an otherwise anti-realistic extravaganza.

Those who are familiar with Mitchell’s narrative worlds will find the devices of interlocking stories and intersecting plots a little jaded and predictable. Others may be exasperated enough to go back to get the connections straight. Towards the end the pace crumbles under details and slumps, and we plod to the end, exhausted and worn out like Holly Sykes, who is a pale reflection of her 15-year-old rebellious self. It’s too early to say whether the enfant terrible of new fiction has run his course or if his course is otherwise scripted?

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