“The Bone Clocks” by David Mitchell, Random House, $30
Partway through David Mitchell's most famous novel, 2004's "Cloud Atlas," one of his six protagonists, the elderly book publisher Timothy Cavendish, is hit by nostalgia upon coming across a small part of England he had not been to in a long time: "(W)e cross, crisscross and recross our old tracks," he says, "like figure skaters." The sextet of protagonists in "Cloud Atlas," although they were separated by years and continents, all indeed end up covering much of the same territory, each in his or her own way.
The same could definitely be said for Mitchell, whose latest effort, "The Bone Clocks," a multiperspective novel, shares much -- quite intentionally -- with "Cloud Atlas." "The Bone Clocks" picks up some of Mitchell's minor characters from his other novels, including his bildungsroman "Black Swan Green," and his historical novel "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet," among others. With his latest, Mitchell is rewriting many of his old works, including new interpretations and backstories, with the goal -- in his words -- of creating an "über-novel."
If only this latest addition lived up to his über-novel's previous chapters. "The Bone Clocks" begins in the 1980s with Holly Sykes, an English teenager who gets into a fight with her mother over her new boyfriend. After running away from home -- and finding her boyfriend in bed with another woman -- Holly is beset by a series of odd intrigues, including strange visions, a magical fight, a woman named Esther Little seeking "asylum" and, eventually, the disappearance of her labyrinth-loving younger brother. Because of ostensibly supernatural reasons, Holly doesn't remember any of the magical happenings -- only that her brother never came back.
Over the course of successful plunges into the future, the narrative approaches Holly from different angles: from her would-be boyfriend Hugo Lamb, a possible sociopath who is effortlessly charming; from her eventual husband, war reporter Ed Brubeck; from her fellow writer, the washed-up Crispin Hershey; and from Dr. Marinus, a strange soul with an incredible secret that ties Holly's life together. We then return to Holly's perspective, 60 years after we first met her, and find her with the same big old heart she had as a teen. In between, Mitchell fills the pages with mostly flawless dialogue and with beautiful tidbits of description (Two of many examples: A door "swings open with the perfect Transylvanian hinge-creak" and a moon-gray cat — that appears in every Mitchell novel — comes "melting out of the shadows.")
As opposed to the six self-contained stories in "Cloud Atlas," "The Bone Clocks" attempts to trace a single story through the ages and locations of the world, fitting them together in a somewhat more conventional arc. But the result feels far too thick and digressive to maintain momentum. For a book whose theme is time (its blessings, its limitations), the story ends up asking too many hours of the reader. It's compelling in places, but it lacks the poignancy and power of "Cloud Atlas."
Before the pages end, though, "The Bone Clocks" -- whose title is taken for what the rest of us are called by those who are not controlled by mortality -- has some thoughtful things to say about time. Perhaps they are never summed up better than when Crispin Hershey, at one point in the book, makes reference to a bit of Philip Roth's "The Human Stain." The quote could have been this novel's epigraph: “Nothing lasts, and yet nothing passes, either, and nothing passes just because nothing lasts.” At least we have many more chapters of Mitchell's über-novel to anticipate.