Literature / The Bone Clocks

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“We live on, as long as there are people to live on in.”

The sixth novel by David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas. Like a number of Mitchell's other works, it plays with different genres and features story lines that cross and re-cross over time.

The Bone Clocks consists of six sections, each set several years after the previous one, and narrated by a different character. The sweeping epic thus created centers on one Holly Sykes, an apparently ordinary Englishwoman with odd psychic powers, and on the multitude of people whose lives she touches throughout the course of her own. Most are content to go on in their own, peaceful existences - but a terrifying supernatural battle lurks on the edges of these characters' mundane stories, and it threatens to take away everything Holly holds dear.


This novel contains examples of:

  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Subverted with Holly. In her early years she is drawn to the likes of Vincent Costello and Hugo Lamb. Later she settles down with Ed Brubeck
    • Played to a T with Vanessa - the girlfriend of Hugo's friend Olly. She callously cheats on Olly and even lampshades this trope while in bed with Hugo.
      Vanessa: The problem with the Ollies in this world is their niceness. Niceness drives me mental.
      Hugo: What's that make me?
      Vanessa: You, Hugo, are a sordid, low-budget French film. The sort you'd stumble across TV at night. You know you'll regret it in the morning, but you keep watching anyway.
  • Bad Future: By the 2040s, climate change has wrecked humanity, the Internet is down, basic commodities like white bread and diesel are running out all over Europe, and there's no more chocolate.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Holly and Hugo have this dynamic going on. It turns out to be short-lived thanks to the latter's Deal with the Devil.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Baptiste Pfenninger and Immaculée Constantin, the two lead Anchorites. The former is the founder of the group and is nominally in charge. The latter, while technically The Dragon, is much more involved in the events of the story and is treated as the most dangerous of the Anchorites.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Rafiq and Lorelei get to escape pre-apocalyptic Europe to a place of relative safety in Iceland. Holly doesn't, and must say goodbye to them in the knowledge that they'll never meet again, and that she herself probably hasn't got long to live. It's also up for speculation just how safe Iceland will be; presumably, the combined fuel crisis, ecological meltdown and widespread societal collapse will get to them sooner or later.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The French dialogue during Hugo's section is entirely untranslated. If the reader doesn't understand French, they have to take Hugo on his word about how rusty he is.
  • Bilingual Backfire: Hugo finds out that the skiing barmaid, Holly, isn't French at all, and that she was faking to make herself unavailable.
  • Black and White Morality: Averted for the most part. While some are more likable than others, most of the major characters are flawed in their own way, having enough positive and negative attributes to balance out their personalities without taking a decisive moral stance.
    • Played straight as far as the war between the Horologists and the Anchorites goes. The former are a group of benevolent, scholar-like immortals who try to use their powers for good. The latter, on the other hand, are essentially a pack of carnivores who make use of living sacrifices to prolong their immortal bodies.
  • Book Ends: The novel begins and ends from Holly's perspective.
  • Blessed with Suck: Holly, whose psychic abilities make her a target for Miss Constantin and the Anchorites, and cause her significant stress and confusion, especially in her younger days, before she comes to accept them.
  • Body Surf: How the Horologists maintain immortality. Some can control it; others are involuntarily dropped into a new body (recently vacated by its soul) every time they use up their old one.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: The Anchorites avert any pretensions of being well-intentioned extremists. They are evil, they know it, and they love it.
  • The Casanova: Hugo's charm, good looks, and skill at manipulation make him very successful with the ladies. He eschews emotional attachments, however, and doesn't believe in love. Until he meets Holly, that is.
  • Chekhov's Gift: Jacko discovers Holly packing a bag to run off to Vincent Costello's. Instead of dissuading her, he hands her a simple circular labyrinth on cardboard, and asks her to commit to heart the route to the center. Holly brushes it off as Jacko being his typically strange self. After Jacko disappears, Holly has it made into a silver pendant.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Holly eventually settles down with Ed Brubeck, whom she befriended in her teenage years.
  • China Takes Over the World: By the 2040s, with Western countries rapidly decaying into chaos, China seems to have taken on the economic and cultural role of the present-day U.S.
  • Crapsack World: The Bad Future as seen in the epilogue. Iraq during The War on Terror is also portrayed as this.
  • Crashing Dreams: The narrator of each section is shaken out of a reverie at some point. Up to Eleven for Hugo, who breaks into an uncharacteristic panic after waking up out of Ferringer's Hiatus.
  • Cryptic Conversation: Nearly any discussion involving the main conflict is this, up until the last third of the book. Rhîmes' and Soleil Moore's scenes take the cake.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Hershey plants traces of cocaine in Richard Cheeseman's suitcase just to get revenge for a bad review. He naively expects this to cause little more than an embarrassing inconvenience for the victim, but Cheeseman ends up spending several years in a Colombian jail.
  • Dirty Old Man: At one point, Ed thinks an elderly street fortuneteller is trying to hit on his young daughter.
  • The Dragon: Immaculée Constantin to Baptiste Pfenninger's Big Bad.
    • Dragon-in-Chief: She's much more active and feared than her master is.
    • Dragon Their Feet: Outlives her boss and fellow Anchorites by a short time span before meeting her end at Holly's hands.
  • Driven to Suicide: Quite literally, in the case of Jonny Penhaligon.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Nearly every death comes off as this, but special mention goes to Ed and Aoife, both of whom die in between sections, offscreen.
  • Eagleland: Type 2 is depicted during Ed's time in Iraq, though it's not a one-sided portrayal.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Hugo Lamb is devious and amoral, but he is genuinely disturbed when he discovers that one of his schemes has led to his friend, Jonny Penhaligon, committing suicide.
  • Fantastic Slurs: Doubles as a Title Drop; the Anchorites refer to Horologists as "bone clocks."
  • Faux Affably Evil: The Anchorites practically ooze this trope. Special mention goes to their leader, Baptiste Pfenninger, who simply loves to gloat in front of his enemies.
  • Foreign Correspondent: Ed Brubeck.
  • Genius Loci: The soul of the Blind Cathar, founder of the Anchorites, fled into the Chapel of the Dusk after his body died in the 1200s. It's still there by the time the story takes place.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: The Blind Cathar, an ancient mystic who originally contacted Baptiste Pfenninger and enabled him to form the Anchorites. The Blind Cathar maintains control over the Chapel, the source of the Anchorites' power, and allows them to prolong their immortality by feeding on mortals.
    • It's heavily implied that the Blind Cathar is still conscious and knows what it's doing. It could even be considered as the novel's true Big Bad with the rest of the Anchorites acting as The Heavy.
  • Immortality Immorality: The Anchorites are all about this one.
  • In Harm's Way: Ed, who feels intensely alive when working as a foreign correspondent in Baghdad. He eventually realizes to his dismay that he's become addicted to the adrenaline rush of life in war zones.
  • Just Before the End: The last section shows Ireland (along with most of the rest of the world) slipping into a new dark age: people can still remember a functional civilization in the recent past, and some technologies and institutions still function, but they're breaking down, and things are almost certainly going to get a lot worse.
  • Ladykiller in Love: Hugo, briefly, when he encounters Holly at the ski resort. This doesn't last long, though, as he chooses to join the Anchorites rather than stay with her. That said, the climax of part 5 suggests that he still had feelings for her, on some level at least, and that this might well have saved Holly in the labyrinth.
  • Manchurian Agent: Elijah D'Arnoq, a committed Anchorite, uses Fake Memories to defect to the Horologists and lead them into a trap. The Horologists know he's a mole, but they still fall for it.
  • Miss Conception: Fifteen-year-old Holly firmly believes that virgins can't get pregnant. This leads to the Teen Pregnancy described below.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Celebrated novelist Crispin Hershey is a major character who bears more than a passing resemblance to the author. Taken to the next level when Hershey's latest book, Echo Never Dies, itself features a writer protagonist (in fact, the story seems to be much like The Bone Clocks); Echo is unfavorably compared to Hershey's best-known work, an older novel that has a mirrored structure suspiciously similar to Mitchell's own bestseller Cloud Atlas.
    • Hershey more closely resembles Martin Amis:
      • Both are literary stylists who write dark satires about 'contemporary Londoners whose upper-middle-class lives have their organs ripped out by controversy or scandal' that gain notoriety - Amis made his name with Dead Babies, whereas Hershey had Desiccated Embryos.
      • Both have a tumultuous relationship with their famous fathers (although Hershey's father was a film director rather than the novelist Sir Kingsley Amis).
      • Both have literary agents with an eye for good business deals. Compare Hal "the Hyena" to Andrew "the Jackal" Wylie.
      • Both suffered a loss in critical esteem after a scathing review from a younger Cambridge-educated writer he knew personally - Amis's Yellow Dog got infamously savaged in print by Tibor Fischer.
      • Mitchell, curiously, denies this, claiming Hershey really is a more monstrous version of himself.
  • Next Sunday A.D.: Hershey's section begins in 2015, only one year after the book's publication.
  • Not Quite Dead: Esther Little survives Rhîmes' attack by taking refuge in Holly's mind.
  • Oracular Urchin: Soleil Moore, a Creepy Child who gives Hershey several collections of prophetic poetry that are apparently crucial to the world. When he admits he hasn't read them, she goes to 'Plan B' and kills him.
  • Pædo Hunt:
    • Ed suspects Dwight Silverwind of pedophilia after the latter tries to tell her fortune. Turns out he only sought out Aoife because he's an Horologist.
    • Ed is hit with this accusation when he grabs another man's daughter, mistaking her for Aoife.
  • The Promise: Holly accepting the tea from Esther Little on the hot day in 1984 came at the promise of "a bolthole." More than 40 years later, Holly finds out what that meant.
    Holly: You have to be bloody joking.
  • The Runaway: Teenage Holly is a textbook Type III.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Hugo can either go downstairs to help his companions deal the the German pimps... or flee through the window.
  • Secretly Wealthy: Hugo has accumulated a substantial secret fortune through various schemes, creating the alter-ego Marcus Anyder to better manage said wealth. Meanwhile, he continues to lead an unremarkable, middle-class life.
  • Self-Deprecation: Hershey's latest book, which shares many similarities with The Bone Clocks itself, is a critical and commercial flop. Cheeseman gives it a scathing review, singling out the juxtaposition of a fantasy subplot with "state-of-the-world pretensions".
  • Snowed-In: Holly and Hugo in the Alps.
  • The Sociopath: Hugo Lamb is the ultimate example of this trope, and well aware that anyone who knew his actual thoughts would call him such. He's manipulative, arrogant, and utterly unscrupulous. Perfect Anchorite material, as it turns out.
  • Sociopathic Soldier: Major Hackensack is a subversion. Though he's uncouth, racist and trigger-happy, he doesn't like the war any more than Ed does; he's just trying to honor the sacrifices made by his fellow soldiers.
  • Straw Feminist: Aphra Booth, a minor character who delivers an asinine paper about the "deconstruction of post-post-feminism" during Crispin Hershey's section. When criticized by Hershey, she accuses him of misogyny and "body fascism" and threatens to sue.
  • Teen Pregnancy: Holly discovers she is pregnant shortly after the events of the first section, and her abortion is alluded to in flashbacks.
  • The Verse: There are many subtle references to the rest of Mitchell's books, allowing all of them to plausibly fit into the same universe.
    • Marinus appears in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, as does a relative of Jonny Penhaligon. In addition, the events during De Zoet's stay on Dejima are mentioned more than once, and more insight is provided on the characters' natures.
    • Mo Muntervary, Holly's neighbor in the final section, is one of the narrators of Mitchell's first novel,Ghostwritten.
    • A young Hugo Lamb is the cousin of Black Swan Green's protagonist.
    • Ed Brubeck writes for Spyglass magazine, just like Luisa Rey did in Cloud Atlas.
    • Hershey's story "The Voorman Problem" features in one of Eiji Miyake's fantasies in the first section of number9dream.
    • Marinus mentions that he and the other Atemporals are putting together a think tank and calling themselves "Prescients," the same name of the technologically advanced group seen After the End in Cloud Atlas.
    • Richard Cheeseman is an acquaintance of Felix Finch, the critic who gets thrown to his death by Dermot Hoggins in Cloud Atlas.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Marinus laments how lonely his immortal existence was without any family or friends who could remain with him from one life to the next. That is, until he joined the Horologists.
  • Write Who You Know: In-Universe, Richard Cheeseman (rather blatantly) bases a character in his novel on Jonny Penhaligon.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Holly catches Vincent Costello in bed with her best friend.
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