Most of David Mitchell’s books require adjectives borrowed from the circus to describe what they do: They are acrobatic, ventriloquistic, tricksterish, and maximalist. At least four of his six published novels are constructed as puzzles, in which Mitchell creates different characters operating in different times and cultures and finds a way to link all these up with each other. His blockbuster third novel, 2004’s Cloud Atlas, won him an array of fans dazzled by this originality, but while it’s true that Mitchell owes few debts to other novelists, Cloud Atlas was actually but the longest and most ambitious effort in a pattern he had already set for himself in his two previous books, Ghostwritten and number9dream.

He returns to the pattern in The Bone Clocks—a plethora of characters, each different in circumstance and culture, whose stories are set in different years and decades. Hugo Lamb is a bright, privileged and callous young Englishman at a moment of crisis in 1991; Iris Fenby is an African-Canadian academic fighting a supernatural battle against an enemy force made up of malevolent soul-stealers in 2025. They are two of a number of voices that sound vividly through this book, all of them linked in one way or another to the book’s protagonist, Holly Sykes, one of the sweetest characters Mitchell has ever written. We first meet Holly in Kent, England, as a teenage runaway in 1984, and follow her through the eyes of others as she grows older; she works as the manager of a bar, falls in love, has a child, is widowed, and becomes the author of a best-selling memoir.

The Bone Clocks: Seeptre., 595 pages, Rs699
The Bone Clocks: Seeptre., 595 pages, Rs699

Take one example, late in the novel, when a character in New York, in a future paused on the brink of disaster, looks around and thinks: “There are days when New York strikes me as a conjuring trick. All great cities do and must revert to jungle, tundra or tidal-flats, if you wait long enough, and I should know. Today, however, New York’s here-ness is incontestable, as if time is subject to it, not it subject to time." It’s all there: Mitchell’s obsession with magic, his sense for landscape, and above all, the abiding obsession of all his books: the passing of time, and the human inability to arrest it.

This is why so many of his books cycle through time and place, trying to find symmetries and harmonies between varying human conditions, hoping to find, like Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses, that even if much is taken, much abides. The villains of this book call humans “the bone clocks", but of course, this is the novel’s title exactly because Mitchell, too, thinks of us as prisoners of time—or perhaps, perversely, as flesh-and-blood cages in which time is imprisoned, waiting to detonate and destroy us from within.

The Bone Clocks is one more attempt at imagining humanity within, and out of, the constraints of mortal sorrow that bind our entire species. But not only is it less successful than Mitchell’s previous novels at doing so, it invokes the question of why Mitchell attempts it at all. Over the course of his last few novels—even the much acclaimed The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet—it’s evident that Mitchell has fewer and fewer interesting things to say about this problem, even as he develops more and more ways of asking the same question.

Since Cloud Atlas and Jacob De Zoet—with due respect to the smaller experiment, Black Swan Green, which was published in between these books—it has been harder than ever to separate Mitchell’s work from the vapour of critical adoration that surrounds it. Generous reviewers laud Mitchell for revitalizing tropes commonly found in historical fiction, science fiction and video games. But what came off as spectacular in his early attempts has been in danger of stagnating into a party trick for some time now, and The Bone Clocks is a warning signal. To draw new insight and excitement from old stories requires more patience with chaos than Mitchell has ever shown. Like the robots, androids and protohumans who populate his fiction, his writing now seems like it is better at simulating humanity than recreating it, or whatever it is we all long for novels to do with humanity.

Supriya Nair is an editor with The Caravan.

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