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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:

  • The Ageless: Once someone becomes an Anchorite, they stay the same age forever and are immune to natural death.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys:
    • In Holly's youth, she is drawn to the likes of sleazy, womanizing, motorcycle-riding Vincent Costello and the womanizing Hugo Lamb. Later she gets over it and settles down with Ed Brubeck.
    • Vanessa, the girlfriend of Hugo's Nice Guy friend Olly. She callously cheats on Olly and even lampshades this trope while in bed with Hugo, who's a womanizing con man.
      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.
  • Ancient Conspiracy: The Anchorites are a small but influential group of immortals who trace their roots back to the Cathars in the 12th century. They lurk under the surface of society, luring in and killing their victims. The Horologists are a much older and more benign group who secretly work to oppose the Anchorites.
  • Bathos: Crispin Hershey's chapter is a good deal more comedic than most of the narrative, thanks in part to Crispin's habit of totaling his life through his own ego, but it still has extremely serious moments, most prominently Richard Cheeseman's unjust imprisonment. Towards the end of the chapter, Crispin has a flashback to a hilariously disastrous childhood birthday in which several children were hospitalized and a drunken magician with a potty mouth accidentally killed the hamster he was trying to pull out of his hat... but the incident ends with Crispin's parents getting divorced over his father's repeated negligence and betrayal, leaving the young Crispin valiantly trying not to cry.
  • Back to the Womb: Most of the immortals have the power to psychically "ingress" into the bodies of others, usually for the sake of controlling their actions or learning their secrets. However, during her first meeting with Marinus, Esther Little briefly uses this ability to settle a paternity suit by transmitting her mind into the body of an unborn child so she can perform a psychoteric DNA scan.
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: Hugo claims to be a legal scholar to stop a local band beating up his friend in a pub. Played with, as his legal knowledge is sound, but he deliberately plays up the extent of his friend's injury to intimidate the assailants further into leaving.
  • Bedroom Adultery Scene: Holly shows up at boyfriend Vinny Costello's place unannounced, intending to move in. She walks in on him in bed with her best friend, whose naked body she gawks at.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Holly and Hugo have this dynamic going on. Holly is dismissive and insulting to Hugo, and yet Hugo pursues her all the same, eventually winning her over. 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. They can also "ingress" their souls into other people's bodies temporarily.
  • Capital Letters Are Magic: Horology is filled with mystical terminology, much of which consists of normal words that are capitalized to indicate their special meaning. Examples include The Script and the Dusk (the lethal material in between lives).
  • 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. This becomes crucially important in the end of the fifth section, When Jacko's maze is the only way to escape the Chapel and Holly and Marinus must follow the maze in order to escape oblivion. Xi Lo (who was in Jacko's body, created the maze as a special escape route, so it was part of Jacko's plan all along.
  • 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.
  • Con Man: Hugo Lamb participates in a number of illicit schemes and has accumulated a good deal of wealth because of it.
  • Crapsack World:
    • 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.
    • Iraq during The War on Terror is also portrayed as this. It's a land with no infrastructure or stability, and with bombs going off constantly.
  • 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 very hard to make sense of, up until the last third of the book. Rhîmes' and Soleil Moore's scenes take the cake.
  • Death of a Child: D'Arnoq claims to have been turned against the Anchorites after they psychologically tortured and murdered a small boy.
  • 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. She's the Second Anchorite and second-in-command in the Anchorites, the group of evil carnivores opposed by Horology.
    • 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, who drives his car off a cliff after he's faced with unpayable gambling debts.
  • 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.
  • Eyeless Face: The Blind Cathar (who makes an appearance in the first story) is an icon of a man with no eyes. This is described as incredibly horrifying, and Holly finds the face hard to tear her eyes from.
  • Fallen States of America: By the 2040s, the United States has been devastated by climate change.
  • Fantastic Slurs: Doubles as a Title Drop; the Anchorites refer to Temporals 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.
  • Faustian Rebellion: Hugo Lamb signs a deal with the shadowy immortal Baptiste Pfenniger, and gains immortality and considerable psychic powers. However, he betrays his leaders after the battle in the Chapel, allowing Constantine to be killed by Holly, due to his love for her. He then allows Holly to escape, and then teams up with his enemy Marinus to help them both escape. It's left ambiguous whether he actually survives and is redeemed.
  • Foreign Correspondent: Ed Brubeck travels to war zones, notably Iraq, to report for The Spyglass.
  • Future Slang: By 2025, "tab" is used as an abbreviation for "tablet", and by the 2040s, "magno" is used as slang for "cool".
  • 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.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Averted. Holly has an abortion as a teenager after discovering she is pregnant.
  • 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.
  • Head-Turning Beauty: When Hugo first sees Imaculee Constantin, her beauty completely distracts him from the concert he was listening to and he gets a Raging Stiffie.
  • His Own Worst Enemy: Crispin Hershey is easy the biggest source of his own problems. On top of being a neurotic egotist who's totaled his marriage, he's also very prone to shooting his mouth off, resulting in numerous missed opportunities, embarrassments, failures, and damaged friendships. In general, he doesn't really think before he acts, hence the main drama of his chapter - and why he ends up losing what little remains of his career and ending up a struggling lecturer at a college. And at the very end of the chapter, his thoughtless disposal of Soleil Moore's work ends up getting him shot dead.
  • Hookers and Blow: Hugo's college friends share a wild, cocaine-fueled night of sex with some beautiful African musicians, who turn out to be prostitutes. Their decadence contrasts greatly with Holly's working-class diligence (she cleans the chalet bathrooms at the same time).
  • Immortality Immorality: The Anchorites maintain their immortality by grooming people (mostly children), killing them, and consuming their souls.
  • 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.
  • Killed Off for Real: Normally, when Horologists die, they are simply born again. But as the Chapel of the Blind Cathar exists between life and death, all the Horologists who died in the battle there were killed off forever.
  • 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.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Wouldn't be a David Mitchell piece without it. As mentioned below, Echo Must Die is similar to The Bone Clocks, with both featuring realistic drama juxtaposed with a fantasy setting.
    • The chapter Hershey reads at literary festivals features a scene in a Cambridge pub that's written in rhyme, describing an earlier scene from Hugo's section of the book.
    • Hershey's desperate pitch for a new book describes a businessman having a breakdown in an East Asian hotel encountering a psychic woman who hears voices, describing a couple of chapters in Mitchell's earlier Ghostwritten.
  • 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.
  • The Mole: Sadaqat, Horology's butler, was mentally infiltrated by the Anchorites, who use him as a spy and persuade him to betray them at a crucial point in the battle. Horology was aware of it but hoped he would remain loyal anyway.
  • 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 Must Die, 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.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Critics have pointed out that Hershey bears a resemblance to Martin Amis. Both are literary stylists who loathe clichés, have tumultuous relationships with their famous fathers (although Hershey's father was a film director rather than the novelist Sir Kingsley Amis), literary agents with animal-themed nicknames (Hershey has Hal "the Hyena", Amis had Andrew "the Jackal" Wylie) and 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). Even the titles are similar; Amis made his name with Dead Babies, whereas Hershey had Desiccated Embryos.
    • Damon Mac Nish sounds like an amalgamation of Morrissey (indie singer with verbose song titles and a strong Latin-American fanbase) and Bono (celebrity campaigner for multiple causes, including AIDS and the war in Sarajevo).
  • 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 a Horologist.
    • Ed is hit with this accusation when he grabs another man's daughter, mistaking her for Aoife.
  • Plot-Inciting Infidelity: At the beginning of the book, teenage Holly Sykes catches her boyfriend in bed with her best friend. In response, she leaves town to wander aimlessly in the countryside. In her wanderings, she is exposed to a major conflict between the Horologists and Anchorites and inadvertently makes a choice that proves crucial to the outcome of the conflict. She also meets several characters (Gwen, Ed Brubeck) that become life-long friends and recurring characters throughout the rest of the book.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Crispin Hershey gets more than a little homophobic in his silent raging against Richard Cheeseman, most prominently calling him a "fairy". Rather than making him look like a villain, it's meant to make him look petty and small-minded. Tellingly, he drops the homophobic insults the moment his "prank" gets Richard imprisoned.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Marinus points out that the villainous Anchorites are all white, implicitly comparing them to an elite club or racist group, in contrast to the racially diverse Horologists. Constantin in particular is openly racist to Sadaqat before snapping his neck.
  • 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.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Maybe. At the end of the fifth section, Hugo Lamb moves to redeem himself for his many acts of evil as an Anchorite by allowing Dragon-in-Chief Miss Constantine to be killed. Hugo consigns himself to nonexistence in order to allow Holly to survive, letting her touch the apple of escape instead of him. He then teams up with Marinus, his enemy, and they combine their psychic powers to attempt to save both of them. Marinus survives, but it's left unstated whether Hugo did. Nevertheless, Hugo accepted his death as part of his redeeming act.
  • Red-Flag Recreation Material: Hugo Lamb, having already established himself as a charming con artist and thief, reads The Art of War (Sun Tzu) while on holiday in Switzerland. Not long afterwards, he screws over his friends, abandons his family, eschews a chance for redemption with Holly Sykes, and plunges to new lows by accepting an offer of recruitment from the the Anchorites.
  • The Runaway: As a teenager, Holly runs away from her family after they find out about her boyfriend and ground her. She runs away to scare them and make them appreciate her more.
  • 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".
  • Shout-Out: Hugo Lamb's character arch is almost a Whole-Plot Reference to the 1926 film of the myth of Faust. He is a young scholar who makes a Deal with the Devil (Pfenninger) and gains impressive powers. However, due to his love for a mortal woman (Holly), he betrays his masters and is given the possibility of redemption, though it's more ambiguous whether he actually survives.
  • Smug Snake: Hugo Lamb fancies himself a smooth and subtle operator. However, interactions with other characters make him realize that he's not nearly as good at concealing his nature as he thinks he is.
  • 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.
  • Soul Eating: Essentially what the Anchorites do. They sustain their immortality by drinking Black Wine, which is made from the souls of psychically-gifted people they lure in and kill.
  • 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.
  • Third Eye: Both Horologists and Anchorites activate their psychic powers using their chakra eye, a beady black eye that can open up in their forehead.
  • Two-Timing with the Bestie: Holly found her best friend Sheila in bed with her boyfriend. This quickly ends both relationships, and Holly avoids both the boyfriend and Sheila for the rest of her life.
  • Unfortunate Names: Richard Cheeseman's name can be shortened to Dick Cheese, a name that's occasionally turned against him.
  • 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.