Book reviews: The Bone Clocks | Disobeying Hitler

Picture: ALEX HEWITT/WRITER PICTURES
Picture: ALEX HEWITT/WRITER PICTURES
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Wow. If I could file a review that consisted only of the word “wow” 900 times over, it still wouldn’t quite capture my delirious response to David Mitchell’s stunning, funny, sad, prophetic, fantastical, satirical, achingly real and gloriously fictitious new novel.

The Bone Clocks

Picture: Contributed

Picture: Contributed

By David Mitchell

Sceptre, 608Pp, £20

It’s not just a great novel in and of its own right, but one which made me want to read the entire Mitchell backlist again.

The Bone Clocks opens in 1984, and seemingly in a naturalist vein. Holly Sykes is running away from home, because her mother was right about her unsuitable boyfriend. She’s sassy and naive – “Wish they’d invent a phone you can speak to anyone anywhere anytime on” – and her petulant excursion across Kent leads her to meet a strange woman who offers her help in exchange for “asylum”.

This is not, however, the first time “weird shit” has happened to young Holly. We cut to 1991, and a ghastly Cambridge undergraduate, Hugo Lamb, whose Alpine trip will lead him to cross paths with both Holly and the “weird shit” she has been running from for more than a decade. Then it’s off to 2004, and a narrative about a war photographer at a wedding trying to summon up the courage to tell his partner that, despite prior promises, he’s heading back into the field.

At this point, the reader is less than halfway through the novel. Where is this going? If we’re a decade ago now, what lies beyond? The answer is: 2015 and a washed-up, cynical, drunk old Young Turk of a novelist doing the rounds of book festivals, 2025 and a cataclysm, 2043 and a warning. In the chapter on Crispin Hershey, the novelist we first heard of in the 1991 section (one of the funniest parodies of the literary world I’ve read), we get a sly little message to the reader. Hal, Crispin’s editor, says “Crispin. Are you telling me that you’re writing a fantasy novel?” “Me? Never! Or it’s only one third fantasy. Half, at most.” “A book can’t be half-fantasy any more than a woman can be half-pregnant”.

As the reader by this stage knows, The Bone Clocks has more than a dash of fantasy. As Mitchell’s characters wend and weave across the late 20th and early 21st centuries, there is another narrative running alongside: one which has to do with immortality. Holly, whose little brother disappeared the day she ran away, has always been the collateral damage of a supernatural war. She might also be the means to end the war. On one side are the Horologists, natural immortals, condemned to keep on coming back in a purgatorial version of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. On the other, the Anchorites of the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Monastery of Sidelhorn Pass, the Psychosoterica of the Shaded Way (villains do love their grandiloquence). They too are immortal, but have achieved it through stealing the lives of others.

One of the Horologists, it transpires, is Dr Marinus, last seen in Mitchell’s previous novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Hugo Lamb commits one of his first bits of nastiness while holidaying in Black Swan Green – the setting, of course, of Mitchell’s novel Black Swan Green. There are references to all of his other books, given like little gifts throughout The Bone Clocks. Does the reader have to get them? No. Will the reader who does get them enjoy the game Mitchell is playing? Indubitably.

Fantastic though the fantasy elements are (the chapter where the Horologists and the Anchorites face off in the Chapel of the Dusk made me yearn for Mitchell to be called by Steven Moffat and asked to write Doctor Who for a while), they are the icing, not the cake.

This is actually a book about what it means to grow old, what grief inflicts on a soul, what we take for granted and what we didn’t notice was important. Holly is a heroine of the normal despite the preternatural plot. She works bars, picks fruit, brings up children, writes because there is no other way to express her feelings, not just because of her encounters with the peculiar, is surprised at herself, is disappointed at herself. She screws up and she triumphs.

The “Returnees” are similarly normal. They cannot predict or choose which life they will next lead, so an intellectual in one life is brought back as a Russian peasant girl in the next, with all the burden of all their former memories.

Mitchell subtly insists – and I think this the novel’s greatest virtue – that the good people are those who can endure what Keats called negative capability – “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. They empathise, they become someone else. The villains want to stay the same forever.

Will it win the Man Booker this year? I would hope so. It’s a novel that is so expansive, so full of the joy of both reading and writing that it ought to. Whether or not it gets a gong, it will leave readers befuddled and amazed, enriching even when he describes how we are impoverishing ourselves and the planet. It would be terrible if Mitchell were the Beryl Bainbridge of his generation, always the bridesmaid and never the groom. This big, bold, weird, real, glad and angry book is a compendium of things the novel can do.

STUART KELLY

• David Mitchell will be talking about his book at Assembly Roxy, 2 Roxburgh Place, Edinburgh, EH8 9SU on 11 September at 7pm

Tickets £8 from Waterstone’s West End or waterstones.com/tickets

Disobeying Hitler

By Randall Hansen

Faber, 480pp, £25

The story of Claus von Stauffenburg and the failed July bomb plot to assassinate Hitler (recounted again here) has been told many times in print and on film. Less well known – and the real subject of this book – is the lower level of resistance by German civilians and soldiers who worked to prevent the wanton destruction of cities and infrastructure in the last 12 months of the Second World War.

The key question for Randall Hansen is: why did it happen in some places and not in others, and what were the consequences? Perhaps the best-known resister is Albert Speer, Nazi minister for armaments. Speer himself claimed that he personally blocked Hitler’s scorched-earth order, in late 1944, to destroy all Germany’s public, industrial and military infrastructure. Is this true?

Mostly, according to Hansen, Speer tended to exaggerate his own role and belittle that of others. Even so, he showed both courage and determination in his dual strategy of both countermanding Hitler’s orders and adding layers of decision-makers to delay the process. He did this because, deluded or no, he saw a life for both himself and Germany’s industrial complex after Hitler. “More than anything,” writes Hansen, “he wanted power.”

Others, such as army commander Dietrich von Choltitz in Paris, had less selfish motives. Von Choltitz was a “complex, morally ambiguous and, in the end, brave and pragmatic man who used his position to ensure the near-bloodless surrender of one of the world’s most beautiful cities”. Far from being a white knight – he had earlier been involved in the liquidation of Jews in Russia – von Choltitz saved Paris in 1944 because he knew its destruction would serve no military purpose.

In Germany itself, civilians played the decisive role. Contrary to Hitler’s orders, more than half of Germany’s cities surrendered without a fight, “often following very brave action on the part of civilian resistance groups” which used both persuasion and force to organise coups againstthe army, police and the SS leadership. Many paid for this with their lives.

Why did some act and not others? Personality played its part: while most German leaders were fanatics, others were realists and knew the game was up. Timing was also a factor. By March 1945 the chain of command had begun to break down and individuals could disobey with less fear of retribution. “As military control weakened, individual discretion increased.” Did all this disobedience matter? Hansen has no doubt. He estimates that tens of thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – of lives were saved. Moreover, the return of an intact Paris to the French people was, he believes, “a seldom recognised precondition for Franco-German reconciliation, itself the anchor of a peaceful, prosperous post-war Europe”. He doubts if the French would have been able to forgive the Germans if they had handed over an “obliterated or even scarred Paris”.

The circle is squared when Hansen makes a connection between the two groups of seemingly unconnected resisters: while the 20 July resisters gave Germany a “sliver of pride” and a “moral framework of reference for post-war political life”, the post-20 July resisters helped ensure Germany could be economically and physically rebuilt. Together, therefore, they played “a great and largely unrecognised role in the recovery of Germany and, therefore, of Europe”.

It is increasingly hard to find anything new to say about Nazi Germany, but Hansen manages this with an excellent, carefully researched, well-written account of German resistance. His conclusions will be music to the ears of some German readers, yet they need to be tempered by the acknowledgement that most resisters – even the 20 July plotters – only chose to act when it was clear the war was lost.

SAUL DAVID

PAPERBACKS:

Jeeves And The Wedding Bells

By Sebastian Faulks

(Arrow, £7.99)

****

This, says Faulks, is intended as a “tribute” to PG Wodehouse rather than an “imitation”. Actually, it’s beautifully done. You find yourself doubly happy to read it – because Bertie Wooster is such a good character, and because Faulks has brought him to life so well. In this story Faulks creates a reversal of fortune in which Bertie must pose as a servant, while Jeeves pretends to be an aristocrat. This unfamiliarity etches their characters very neatly. A great pleasure.

Ukraine Diaries

By Andrey Kurkov

(Harvill Secker, £9.99)

****

Andrey Kurkov, a writer living in the middle of Kiev with his family, finds himself living in interesting times, so he writes a diary. The first thing he notices is that his experience of time is different. You no longer think of your life in terms of, for instance, buying things; instead, every day is full of important events and you seem to be on the brink of major life changes all the time.

Cat Sense

By John Bradshaw

(Penguin, £8.99)

***

This is a clear explanation of the evolution of the world’s favourite pet. All cats are apparently descended from “a medium-sized cat-like animal”, Pseudaelurus, which lived in Asia 11 million years ago. In the great cat diaspora, this became the caracal and the serval, and on to north America, where it became “the bobcat, lynx and puma”. And now look ....

WILLIAM LEITH