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Friday Book Design Blog: The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

Jonathan Gibbs

bone clocks Friday Book Design Blog: The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell
So this week we were introduced to the cover of the next novel by David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks. His publisher, Sceptre, have put up a dedicated website, with an ‘interactive cover’ – i.e. you click on bits of it to get all the bits you usually get by not having to click on bits of a book cover. (Click on the lighthouse, for example, to “View a photo of David Mitchell”; clicking on it takes you to: https://www.hodder.co.uk/assets/HodderStoughton/img/Author%20Photos/David_Mitchell.jpg. Hmm, a bit more thought could have gone into that aspect.)

There has been a certain amount of chat on Twitter about the cover, comparing it to its US counterpart from Random House), which is far more austere: it appears to be part of some sort of machine; we see series of concentric metallic circles, like shutters over a lens, with – ooh! – an apple in the middle of them, the whole thing overlaid with what appears to be a view of an ocean from space, with partial cloud coverage.

If that seems like a tantalising set of clues, the UK cover is a veritable cornucopia of them: look! There’s a labyrinth, an old-fashioned pocket watch, an apple, a cassette tape, a double spiral staircase, that lighthouse, and – smaller now – a bird, a spider, a cat, a flying bee or beetle, a bicycle, a pair of structures that might be buildings, might be mantelpiece ornaments, and, streaming around the cover to link these disparate elements: waves of water, ribbons of unspooled cassette tape, skeins of pink paint that turn into stylised birds (pawed at by the cat), twigs and branches, both living brown-green and dead-or-artificial grey-silver, threads of smoke, some kind of amber necklace dipping into at the top… and, behind them all, a dark backdrop of the night sky, with stars and clouds.

Are these really clues, though?

The press release gives us an intriguing introduction to Mitchell’s novel:

“One drowsy summer’s day in 1984, teenage runaway Holly Sykes encounters a strange woman who offers a small kindness in exchange for ‘asylum’.  Decades will pass before Holly understands exactly what sort of asylum the woman was seeking…

“The Bone Clocks follows the twists and turns of Holly’s life, from a scarred adolescence in Gravesend to old age on Ireland’s Atlantic coast as Europe’s oil supply dries up – a life not so far out of the ordinary, yet punctuated by flashes of precognition, visits from people who emerge from thin air and brief lapses in the laws of reality.  For Holly Sykes – daughter, sister, mother, guardian – is also an unwitting player in a murderous feud played out in the shadows and margins of our world, and may prove to be its decisive weapon.”

Now, does any of the cover imagery chime with any of that? No, it doesn’t.

The cover contains just one clue: this, like Mitchell’s best books, is built out of a collection of glittering, seemingly disparate elements that become linked together, as we read the book, not necessarily through narrative, but thematically, nudgingly, teasingly – premonitions and fantastical occurrences bringing worlds into collision.

Mitchell is a master stylist, producing exquisite and tasteful pastiches of well-chosen genres and writers, which he then doesn’t so much weave together as juggle and then freeze in mid-air – there is always clear blue sky between them, but always enough echoes for us to draw the lines between them (and of course this structure is itself a pastiche: a reader-friendly smoothing-out of postmodern bricolage).

So, looking at the cover tells us nothing, really, about what’s likely to be inside, except, I guess, that this is not the David Mitchell of Black Swan Green or The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet or Peep Show (so-rr-ee!), this is the David Mitchell of his first three books, Ghostwritten and number9dream and Cloud Atlas. It’s David Mitchell going back to what he probably does best (or what sold best, at least).

In fact, the biggest clue of all on the cover is that ‘author of CLOUD ATLAS’ nipped in below his name.

It’s not a bad cover. It is, at least, an honest cover. And, as such, I think I prefer it to the more overtly sophisticated US one.


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