TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Novelist David Mitchell is the author of "Cloud Atlas," "The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet" and other novels containing multiple storylines that defy boundaries of time and genre. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, says that Mitchell's latest, "The Bone Clocks," is more of the same, but different.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: David Mitchell is one of those writers I'd follow anywhere, even deep into, what is for me, the often-exasperating genre of fantasy fiction. I don't naturally gravitate details about alternative universes, wormholes or tribbles. But there are always exceptions, and if Mitchell feels like trying out a semi-futuristic vehicle about immortal soul-stealers, I'm willing to take a deep breath, step aboard and say, in the words, of Rod Serling, next stop, "The Twilight Zone."
As in "Cloud Atlas" and some of his lesser-known novels, Mitchell's new book, called "The Bone Clocks," is elaborately constructed, jumping around in time and narrative perspective. A friend of mine who's also Mitchell enthusiast, rightly says that his novels are postmodernist without all the pretentious metaphysics. What my friend means is that Mitchell's technical wizardry is there, not for show, but in service to his themes and characters. He's a deeply compassionate writer. In fact, despite its experimental edge the main reason to read "The Bone Clocks" is an old-fashioned one - the drama of a charismatic character named Holly Sykes.
Holly opens and closes the 600-plus-page odyssey into the dark side, which spans from 1984 to 2043. A self-involved and sex-addled 15-year-old when we first meet her, Holly runs away from her working-class home in London after her mom forbids her to see her sleazy, older boyfriend anymore. Appearing unannounced at the boyfriend's flat, Holly discovers him in bed with her best friend. What now?
Mitchell vividly evokes the traps of worldview of a miserable adolescent, desperate for a way out. A sniffling Holly takes to the road alone where she becomes prime pray for a ghastly gang of mystics known as the Anchorites, who never die as long as they have fresh souls to swallow. What makes Holly such an appealing entree is the fact that she's gifted with what her Irish relatives call the second sight. Since early childhood, she's experienced visitations and heard disembodied voices that she calls the radio people. Fortunately, the Anchorites aren't the only ones the supernatural travelers on the road with Holly. And in a bang-up teaser to the apocalyptic ending of this novel, Holly survives an attempted soul-mugging intact with a little help from her spirit guardians. It's when she returns to her family that Holly walks into another nightmare - one that reverberates throughout the rest of her life.
Enough. It's impossible to summarize the plots of fantasy novels, even fine ones without sounding like a "Doctor Who"-obsessed 12-year-old. Fortunately, beneath the big framework of his fantasy novel, the tireless Mitchell constructs other types of stories - a classic con-artist tale narrated by a scholarship boy at Cambridge, a war dispatch told to us by a journalist who's addicted to the thrill of fear and, naughtiest of all, an academic, literary force, narrated by a bad-boy, British novelist who's bouncing from book festival to college-visiting writer gig.
The many narratives of "The Bone Clocks" are united by their unexpected links to Holly as well as by their obsession with the theme of mortality. Here's a passage where the con-artist college student experiences a vision of inevitable decrepitude in, of all places, a discotheque.
(Reading) Empires die, like all of us dancers in the strobe-lit dark. Look, wrinkles spread like mildew over our peachy sheen. Varicose veins worm through plucked calves. DNA frays like wool, and down we tumble - a fall on the stairs, a heart attack, a stroke--not dancing, but twitching. They knew it in the Middle Ages; life is a terminal illness.
In "The Bone Clocks," a map of a labyrinth is Holly's only defense against annihilation. As a novel, "The Bone Clocks" itself is a labyrinth, offering readers, not a defense against death of course, but the chance to step out of time for a while and into a world richer and stranger than most of us can imagine.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University, and she's the author of the new book "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." She reviewed "The Bone Clocks" by David Mitchell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.