In the interests of full disclosure, I offered to write this whilst I was half-cut and rampaging my way through Twitter on a Friday night. I love books, so I couldn’t resist.
The books on the shelf can be your noisy friend, silent protector or even a self-help manual that has become a touchstone throughout the years. Writing about a favourite should, therefore, be easy…
Choosing a favourite is an entirely different matter.
Should it be the book you read the most? In my case, that would be Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which is dipped into every couple of years, like special medication or a light hand on the rudder.
Or possibly a favourite is more like the simple, torch-under-the-covers-at-lights-out, gentle joy-bringers of Jilly Cooper, or one of the ‘Jill’s Riding Club’ series, or even a Famous Five story (unfortunate 1950s social infractions of the latter two aside). These books ask nothing of us.
So in picking a favourite, careful thought must be taken. For me, to read is to seek some kind of oblivion, except instead of nothing there are fantastic people or creatures, beautiful landscapes and intriguing plots. Instead of going under you emerge into a kaleidoscopic vista.
After a long and winding road (read: procrastination) of an introduction, we come to my favourite: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell.
It is part of that great, magical, mysterious Mitchell-verse with links to his other works including Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, number9dream, and Ghostwritten. So if you know the other novels there is a sweet, warm familiarity. I do, so was already invested, but that is by no means essential to enjoy this novel.
Beyond the associations to his other works, the sheer scale of Mitchell’s imagination is immense – it’s a world where mere humans can become alternate beings, cease to be physical, control others with a thought and persuade them to do their bidding with tricks of the mind. A place where a soul can be hidden within another but crucially, among all the confusion, the characters could all be someone you meet down the pub, your mate or an enemy.
It’s lyrical too – gorgeous descriptions of Iceland, Ireland, New York, Cambridge, and even the south coast of England on a boiling day, along with the characters and the plot, conspire to pull you in and make you totally forget reality.
There’s also great intrigue – I mean, WTF is going on? Really? It’s proper Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole stuff – and it’s quite nice being Alice sometimes. While you’re tumbling down the rabbit hole you’re not thinking about work, family, unrequited love, politics, or any of that shit that gives you a sick feeling in the stomach.
Don’t get me wrong; there are some clear messages about kindness, love, war, technological collapse and just how quickly humanity is destroying this planet, so it’s not like taking a bucket-load of E and enjoying a self-involved love-in. It raises questions. Pertinent ones.
But it spirits you away from the mundane and the dreary, and instead you get caught up in the ‘real’ and metaphysical lives that are wrought on the page, becoming completely absorbed in a battle between good (The Horologists – natural immortals who ‘body surf’ from one body to the next either at will or, inconveniently and randomly, into the body of a recently deceased soul) and evil (The Anchorites – who casually decant the souls of children to brew up wine to make themselves immortal).
One character starts out a rich, sexist, Oxbridge fraudster and all-round lah-dee-dah dickhead – then in a nice touch he becomes an Anchorite. However, even though he is vile, he’s still a bit vulnerable. There’s a tiny heart kindling in there somewhere so it’s impossible to dismiss him and just move on. Even the shitty ones get in your bones in this book.
Characters like him are balanced out by the kind, the righteous and the selfless, and at the centre of it all is the bewildered heroine.
So, let’s talk about Holly, our protagonist, because she’s the link between all the stories in the book. She’s an angry fifteen year old running away from home, she’s a wife, a mother, she’s asylum for the soul of an Anchorite. She’s rooted in normality. She falls in love, she gets angry, she feels grief. She’s someone just like you or me, and her getting tangled up in this world tells me that anyone, anywhere can go on a crazy journey. That’s a pretty charming notion when the mundane threatens to outbalance your moments of joy.
The novel, for me, is a spectacular mind-melter. It’s a door into Narnia, a conduit to an elsewhere where everything is more interesting. It’s a novel where I’d miss my bus stop because I was too involved in the words – a book hadn’t helped me achieve that zen-like state of being since I was a child.
While I was reading it I’d turn down invitations so I could get back to it as soon as possible. I mourned it when I turned the last page.
And then – for me this is the real killer – when I think about it, the work came from one guy, sat over his paper / typewriter / computer day after day, hour after hour, grinding out words. Writing is really hard. It’s not like the story, plot, characters and words are there already; they have to be conjured out of nothing.
Thanks for slogging it out, David Mitchell. You made my favourite and, as I devoured the pages, you took me to another universe.