This is Mitchell departing – to some extent – from the cats-cradle style complexity of his earlier plots. Where his other novels are kind of stretched across time and space, those dimensions are condensed here into one truly spooky location: that of the elusive Slade House. And while this book doesn’t offer up the thrills and spills of a full on horror story, it really worms its way under the skin.
It probably helps to have read The Bone Clocks first, as that introduces some of the arcane concepts that Mitchell develops here. But what really makes this story so compelling is the author’s chameleon like gift for getting inside the heads of his characters – for exploiting and exposing their weaknesses and insecurities. And while Slade House doesn’t play out on the same global scale as novels like Cloud Atlas, it still presents a fascinating weave of characters and concepts, many of which feed into his other books.
There’s a steady heightening of atmosphere as time reveals the crimes committed in Slade House and the stakes are raised for its anima eating inhabitants. And some genuinely unnerving twists and turnarounds occur as Mitchell’s ghouls manipulate their victims’ sense of reality, and that of his readers. In all, a great return to form after the convoluted atemporal shenanigans of The Bone Clocks.
I’m in two minds about The Bone Clocks. If I hadn’t read anything by David Mitchell before, I’d probably be bowled away by its ingenuity: a story which begins in the recent past and stretches into an apocalyptic future, framed through the perspectives of a set of well drawn and irresistably flawed characters. I’d also have marvelled at Mitchell’s genre-bending antics, flicking with almost casual ease from thriller to fantasy to sci-fi by way of some biting social and political satire. And there is no doubt that the sheer audacity of inventing an entire metaphysical system – a metaworld populated my metalives – would have had me on the edge of my seat.
But there was one problem, which is that Dave’s kind of done all of this before, and he’s done it so much better. He’s done it better by allowing the reader to fill in the gaps, as is the case in Ghostwritten, or by taking a very simple idea but playing it out on a massive scale as in Cloud Atlas. What seems a weakness in The Bone Clocks is that this is where Mitchell sets out his stall. He literally tells us, the readers, what’s going on. Granted, there’s the great opening mystery – a missing child, an apparent double murder, a hint at psychic abilities. But that air of mystery gradually collapses in on itself as we learn about the Horologists and their soul-sucking foes the Anchorites. And worst of all, those mysteries which were so elegantly played out in earlier novels such as The 1001 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet are now revealed, laid bare and somehow lose something in the telling. Laid bare, furthermore, in dialogue which is sometimes more cheap sci-fi flick than Booker long-listed novel.
So while I’m still in thrall to the literary magician that is David Mitchell – a writer capable of creating an entire parallel universe over the course of his writing career – I do wish he’d delivered up his secrets with a little more subtlety in The Bone Clocks. Unless, of course, there are more secrets to be delivered…
I still can’t quite believe that this was a first novel. It read far more like the work of an author who already has several great works under his belt and has finally decided to produce their “real masterpiece.”
In fact I’ve already read Cloud Atlas and the 1001 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, so perhaps I was inclined to be biased. But I never expected anything quite so lateral in terms of narrative structure, so intricate in terms of plotting, or so profound in terms of concept.
It’s a book that I immediately wanted to rediscover as soon as I’d finished it. Part of the fun of reading Mitchell’s work is the way his stories interlock. It almost becomes a compulsion to trace all the little overlaps and twists which precede and follow from one narrative to the next. But what makes the experience of reading Ghostwritten even more rewarding, is the growing awareness that all these little points of literary triangulation add up to something so much bigger. Something really big.
This is, after all, a novel about the relationship between contingency and fate – about the way we structure our lives around narrative to give them meaning, about our inability to see the hidden points of connection, and ultimately I guess about our ability to tweak those points in order to radically change the world we live in. It’s a story which is global in scale, but never loses sight of detail, a book in which each character’s perspective sucks the reader into an entirely new reality which, fractal-like, functions as a miniature of the whole story.
Just absolutely loved it. Can’t get enough of Mitchell’s work. He has to be one of the most significant writers of modern times.