A Turn for the Woowoo

Theo Tait

  • The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
    Sceptre, 595 pp, £20.00, September 2014, ISBN 978 0 340 92160 9

David Mitchell is a career-long genre-bender. Only with his fourth book, Black Swan Green (2006), did he raid his own store of experience to write a first-novelish novel, a charming if low-key coming-of-age story, set in Worcestershire in 1982, full of references to Findus Crispy Pancakes, the Falklands War and playground slang. The rest of his work occupies the realm of pure story, with postmodern spectaculars in the manner of Calvino or Murakami; there is also one historical novel in the approved modern style (much densely researched, gruesome detail and ‘period’ dialogue; love affairs across ethnic boundaries). Philip Hensher amusingly panned that book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010), which was set on a Dutch trading post in Nagasaki Bay in 1799, as ‘an exotically situated romance of astounding vulgarity’. Hensher took issue with its mysterious, beautiful Japanese maidens and its inscrutable, silk-robed, mind-reading villain, but it would probably be more accurate to say that it was either a little too vulgar, or not quite vulgar enough. The Thousand Autumns would have done better as either a serious exploration of a fascinating historical scenario – a tiny foreign outpost on an artificial island just off the coast of an empire closed entirely to outsiders – or as a cheerful romp in the tradition of Dumas and Stevenson. In the event, it was both and neither.

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