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book review

‘The Bone Clocks’ by David Mitchell

DAVID PLUNKERT FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

David Mitchell is one of the most electric writers alive. To open a Mitchell book is to set forth on an adventure. His work spans the globe, from Tokyo in the near present to England in the recent past and Japan in the Napoleonic era. They are full of sea captains, cannibals, terrorists, midwives, composers, star-crossed lovers, and genetically modified food-service workers.

In his latest novel, “The Bone Clocks,” Mitchell has spun his most far-flung tale yet. It is a book about God and grand designs, a genre-hopping, gender-bending book that feels like a rewriting of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando,” incorporating Julio Cortázar’s occult tool kit and Terry Pratchett’s wit. It’s such enormous good fun it takes a few days to realize how serious is its intent.

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The book begins in the 1980s in Gravesend, England, then caroms all the way into an alternate 21st-century universe of not so far-fetched consequences of climate change. Like his hugely popular 2004 Booker finalist, “Cloud Atlas,” the novel is basically a series of linked novellas, which nestle neatly into one another.

Unlike that book, though, which was a closet treatise on the novel, “The Bone Clocks” chases bigger quarry. Why, it asks, do we need the grand narratives at all? Family, class, selfhood, nationhood, and, especially, religion? Do these ways of seeing and organizing the world actually help us live mindfully?

Or are they all just fictions we embrace to take our minds off the fact, as the title so bluntly reminds, that we are just bone clocks, counting down the remaining days?

Our guide to these questions is the pluckily named Holly Sykes. As the book kicks off Holly has missed curfew, earning a slap from her protective Irish mother. Her bartender father, meanwhile, hadn’t even noticed she was gone.

Holly plans to run away from home to teach them both a lesson, even if it means leaving behind her beloved oddball brother, Jacko. She sets off across town only to have her plans dashed when she discovers her 24-year-old lover cheating with her so-called best friend.

Thus begins Holly’s larger odyssey, away from safety and into the arms of the world and its chaos, which in her case, contains startling rips in the fabric of reality. Once hospitalized for hallucinations, Holly’s road to bumming for work is visited by spectral visions of a dangerous netherworld. Demons with gnomic messages speak to her; a creepy assassin tracks her down. Nearing the end of her runaway scheme, she also learns that her brother has gone missing.

On its first occasion, Mitchell’s rupture of realism’s patina feels jarring, as kitschy as when UFOs swoop down on Harrison Ford in “Cowboys & Aliens.” He has used this strategy before, of parallel narratives, too, most successfully in his second novel, “Number9dream,” in which a boy’s search for his father in modern-day Tokyo swooped in and out of gorgeously described daydreams.

That book was centered on one character, so its imaginative wanderings served an expansive purpose. It made his hero seem as roomy and complex as young men feel.

In “The Bone Clocks,” these breaks in reality operate differently. They are like tiny glimpses of an order to the universe, hidden beneath the surface. They also form the engine of its plot.

Leaping forward in time in the next section, we meet a scholarship student named Hugo in 1991 Oxbridge trying to con his classmates into believing he is one of them. His charade comes apart over a hideous skiing weekend in the Swiss Alps, where he encounters none other than Holly Sykes, burying her guilt over her brother’s unsolved disappearance in copious amounts of work.

After a long weekend spent in bed with Holly, Hugo is visited by the very same immortal figures who had visited Holly over a decade ago. He has to make a choice, a Faustian bargain: Stay with her and the world of consequences or follow this cadre of undead to the underworld where he can be granted the ability to live forever. Hugo takes the bait and walks out on a life of risk and possible domestic bliss.

The deeper one reads into “The Bone Clocks,” the easier it becomes to sustain the disbelief required to find out how Mitchell will tie the still shadowy world together with the more realistic one. He writes with such luminous clarity and pitch-perfect voice he can basically lead a reader anywhere he wishes.

In a third section, a self-obsessed writer named Crispin Hershey chases book sales and fame on the literary festival circuit, where none other than Holly Sykes appears in yet another incarnation, having made a separate peace with the visions that plagued her. With satirical precision, Mitchell reminds us that the world is full of people who yearn for earthly immortality, writers chief among them.

There are moments throughout “The Bone Clocks” where Mitchell comes very close to being, well, silly. The prolonged battle between undead figures that culminates in the fourth section occasionally has a slapstick quality, rather than a frightening one, which is a strange edge to give a face-off that will determine the fate of the world. It is as if Mitchell has decided to test his reader, to see how far he can stretch the fabric of belief, before it snaps.

Mitchell brings his tale’s tone back to ground just in time. It’s a fantasy, “The Bone Clocks” screams at us, to think we live forever, that we are immortal or can be, to consume as if this were so. In a moving final section, some scant decades in the future, Mitchell provides a glimpse of where this attitude will take us. Food shortages, rising tides. All clocks wind down. Live as if this were so, this strange and magical novel reminds.

John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist.”
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