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Exclusive First Read: 'The Bone Clocks' By David Mitchell

David Mitchell's new novel, The Bone Clocks, is a treat for longtime fans and people who've never picked up one of his books before. It's a decades-spanning saga that switches perspective from section to section among a wildly disparate group of people — but the center of it all is Holly Sykes, at the start of the book a psychically sensitive runaway who gets caught up in a war between two factions of ancient near-immortals. The Bone Clocks is a deft and entertaining mix of literary fiction and fantasy — and Mitchell fans will appreciate the Easter eggs here and there, returning characters and themes from previous books that begin to tie all Mitchell's books into one grand universe. This scene is told from the perspective of Ed, Holly's partner and the father of her child — and also a war journalist who's about to embark on a dangerous assignment. The Bone Clocks will be published Sept. 2.

ELEVEN O'CLOCK AT night, and all's well, kind of, for now. Olive Sun wants me flying out again by Thursday at the latest, so I'll have to tell Holly soon. Tonight, really, so she doesn't make plans for the three of us next week. Fallujah is the biggest deployment of marines since the battle for Hue City in Vietnam, and I'm stuck here on the Sussex coast. Holly'll hit the frigging roof, but I'd better get it over and done with, and she'll have to calm down for Sharon's wedding tomorrow. Aoife's asleep in the single bed in the corner of our hotel room. I only got here after her bedtime, so I still haven't said hi to my daughter, but the First Rule of Parenting states that you never wake a peacefully sleeping child. I wonder how Nasser's girls are sleeping tonight, with dogs barking and gunfire crackling and marines kicking down doors. CNN's on the flatscreen TV with the sound down, showing footage of marines under fire on rooftops in Fallujah. I've seen it five times or more and even the pundits can't think of anything fresh to say until the news cycle starts up again in a few hours, when Iraq begins a new day. Holly texted a quarter of an hour ago to say she and the other hens'll be heading back to the hotel soon. "Soon" could mean anything in the context of a wine ­bar, though. I switch off the TV, to prove I'm no war junkie, and go to the window. Brighton Pier's all lit up like Fairyland on Friday night, and pop music booms from the fairground at the far end. By English standards it's a warm spring evening, and the restaurants and bars on the promenade are at the end of a busy evening. Couples walk hand in hand. Night buses trundle. Traffic obeys the traffic laws, by and large. I don't knock a peaceful and well-­functioning society. I enjoy it, for a few days, weeks, even. But I know that, after a couple of months, a well-­ordered life tastes like a flat, non-­alcoholic lager. Which isn't the same as saying I'm addicted to warzones, as Brendan helpfully implied earlier. That's as ridiculous as accusing David Beckham of being addicted to playing soccer. Just as soccer is Beckham's art and his craft, reporting from hot ­spots is my art and my craft. I wish I'd said that to the clan earlier.

Aoife giggles in her sleep, then groans sharply. I go over. "You okay, Aoife? It's only a dream."

Unconscious Aoife complains, "No, silly! The lemon one." Then her eyes flip open like a doll's in a horror movie: "We're going to a hotel in Brighton later, 'cause Aunty Sharon's marrying Uncle Pete, and we'll meet you there, Daddy. I'm a bridesmaid."

I try not to laugh, and stroke Aoife's hair back from her face. "I know, love. We're all here now, so you go back to sleep. I'll be here in the morning and we'll all have a brilliant day."

"Good," Aoife pronounces, teetering on the brink of sleep ...

David Mitchell's previous books include <em>The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet</em> and <em>Cloud Atlas</em>.
/ Paul Stuart
Paul Stuart
David Mitchell's previous books include The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Cloud Atlas.

... she's gone. I pull the duvet over her My Little Pony pajama top and kiss her forehead, remembering the week in 1997 when Holly and I made this precious no-­longer-­quite-­so-­little life-form. The Hale-Bopp Comet was adorning the night sky, and thirty-nine members of the Heaven's Gate cult committed mass suicide in San Diego so their souls could be picked up by a UFO in the comet's tail and be transported to a higher state of consciousness beyond human. I rented a cottage in Northumbria and we had plans to go hiking along Hadrian's Wall, but hiking didn't turn out to be the principal activity of the week. Now look at her. I wonder how she sees me. A bristly giant who teleports into her life and teleports out again for mystifying reasons, perhaps — not so different from how I saw my own father, I guess, except while I'm away on various assignments, Dad went away to various prisons. I'd love to know how Dad saw me when I was a kid. I'd love to know a hundred things. When a parent dies, a filing cabinet full of all the fascinating stuff also ceases to exist. I never imagined how hungry I'd be one day to look inside it.

When I was back in February she was having her period. I hear Holly's key in the door. I feel vaguely guilty.

Not half as guilty as she'll make me feel, though.

Holly's having trouble with the lock so I go over, put the chain on, and open it up a crack. "Sorry, sweetheart," I tell her, in my Michael Caine voice. "I never ordered no kinky massage. Try next door."

"Let me in," says Holly, sweetly, "or I'll kick you in the nuts." "Nope, I didn't order no kick in the nuts, neither. Try — " Not so sweetly: "Brubeck, I need to use the loo!"

"Oh, all right, then." I unchain the door and stand aside. "Even if you have come home too plastered to use a key, you dirty stop ­out."

"The locks in this hotel are all fancy and burglar-­proofed. You need a PhD to open the damn things." Holly bustles past to the bathroom, peering down at Aoife in passing. "Plus I only had a few glasses of wine. Mam was there as well, remember."

"Right, as if Kath Sykes was ever a girl to put the dampeners on a 'wine-tasting session.' "

Holly closes the bathroom door. "Was Aoife okay?" "She woke up for a second, otherwise not a squeak."

"Good. She was so excited on the train down, I was afraid she was going to be up all night dancing on the ceiling." Holly flushes the toilet to provide a bit of noise cover. I go over to the window again. The funfair at the end of the pier is winding down, by the look of it. Such a lovely night. My proposed six-month extension for Spyglass in Iraq is going to wreck it, I know. Holly opens the bathroom door, smiling at me and drying her hands. "How did you spend your quiet night in? Snoozing, writing?"

Her hair's up, she's wearing a low-­cut figure-­hugging black dress and a necklace of black and blue stones. She hardly ever looks like that anymore. "Thinking impure thoughts about my favorite yummy mummy. Can I help you out of that dress, Miss Sykes?"

"Down, boy." She fusses over Aoife. "We're sharing a room with our daughter, you might have noticed."

I walk over. "I can operate on silent mode." "Not tonight, Romeo. I'm having my period."

Thing is, I haven't been back often enough in the last six months to know when Holly's period is. "Guess I'll have to make do with a long, slow snog, then."

" 'Fraid so matey." We kiss, but it's not as long and slow as advertised, and Holly isn't as drunk as I was half hoping. When was it that Holly stopped opening her mouth when we kiss? It's like kissing a zipped-­up zip. I think of Big Mac's aphorism: In order to have sex, women need to feel loved; but in order for men to feel loved, we need to have sex. I'm keeping my half of the deal — so far as I know — but sexually, Holly acts like she's forty-­five or fifty-­five, not thirty-­five. Of course I'm not allowed to complain, because that's pressurizing her. Once Holly and I could talk about anything, anything, but all these no-­go areas keep springing up. It all makes me ... I'm not allowed to be sad either, because then I'm a sulky boy who isn't getting the bag of sweets he thinks he deserves. I ­haven't cheated on her — ever — not that Baghdad is a hotbed of sexual opportunity, but it's depressing still being a fully functioning thirty-­five-­year-­old male and having to take matters into my own hands so often. The Danish photojournalist in Tajikistan last year would've been up for it if I'd been less anxious about how I'd feel when the taxi dropped me off at Stoke Newington and I heard Aoife yelling, "It's Daaaaddyyy!"

Holly turns back to the bathroom. She leaves the door open, and starts to remove her makeup. "So, are you going to tell me or not?"

I sit on the edge of the double bed, alert. "Tell you what?"

She dabs cotton wool under her eyes. "I don't know yet." "What makes you think I ... have anything to tell you?" "Dunno, Brubeck. Must be my feminine intuition."

I don't believe in psychics but Holly can do a good impression of one. "Olive asked me to stay on in Baghdad until December."

Holly freezes for a few seconds, drops the cotton wool, and turns to me. "But you've already told her you're quitting in June."

"Yeah. I did. But she's asking me to reconsider."

"But you told me you're quitting in June. Me and Aoife."

"I told her I'd call back on Monday. After discussing it with you." Holly's looking betrayed. Or as if she's caught me downloading porn. "We agreed, Brubeck. This would be your final final extension."

"I'm only talking about another six months." "Oh, f'Chrissakes. You said that the last time."

"Sure, but since I won the Sheehan-­Dower Prize I've been — " "And the time before that. 'Half a year, then I'm out.' " "This'll cover a year of Aoife's college expenses, Hol." "She'd rather have a living father than a smaller loan."

"That's just"­ — you can't call angry women "hysterical" these days; it's sexist — "hyperbole­. Don't stoop to that."

"Is that what Daniel Pearl said to his partner before he jetted off to Pakistan? 'That's just hyperbole'?"

"That's tasteless. And wrongheaded­. And Pakistan's not Iraq." She lowers the toilet lid and sits on it so we're roughly at eye level.

"I'm sick of wanting to puke with fear every time I hear the word 'Iraq' or 'Baghdad' on the radio. I'm sick of hardly sleeping. I'm sick of having to hide from Aoife how worried I am. Fantastic, you're an in-­demand award-­winning journalist, but you have a six-­year-­old who wants help riding a bike with no stabilizers. Being a crackly voice for a minute every two or three days, if the satphone's working, isn't enough. You are a war junkie. Brendan was right."

"No, I am not. I am a journalist doing what I do. Just as he does what he does and you do what you do."

Holly rubs her head like I'm giving her a headache. "Go, then! Back to Baghdad, to the bombs taking the front off your hotel. Pack. Go. Back to 'what you do.' If it's more precious than us. Only you'd better get the tenants out of your King's Cross flat 'cause the next time you're back in London, you'll be needing somewhere to live." I keep my voice low: "Will you please fucking listen to yourself?" "No, you fucking listen to yourfuckingself! Last month you agree to quit in June and come home. Your high-­powered American editor says, 'Make it December.' You say, 'Uh, okay.' Then you tell me. Who are you with, Brubeck? Me and Aoife, or Olive Sun and Spyglass?"

"I'm being offered another six months' work. That's all."

"No, it's not 'all' 'cause after Fallujah dies down or gets bombed to shit it'll be Baghdad or Afghanistan Part Two or someplace else, there's always someplace else, and on and on until the day your luck runs out and then I'm a widow and Aoife has no dad. Yes, I put up with Sierra Leone, yes, I survived your assignment in Somalia, but Aoife's older now. She needs a dad."

"Suppose I told you, 'No, Holly, you can't help homeless people anymore. Some have AIDS, some have knives, some are psychotic. Quit that job and work for ... for Greenland supermarkets instead. Put all those people skills of yours to use on dried goods. In fact, I'm ordering you to, or I'll kick you out.' How would you respond?"

"F'Chrissakes, the risks are different." Holly lets out an angry sigh. "Why bring this up in the middle of the bloody night? I'm Sharon's matron of honor tomorrow. I'll look like a hungover­ panda. You're at a crossroads, Brubeck. Choose."

I make an ill-­advised quip: "More of a T-junction, technically." "Right. I'd forgotten. It's all a joke to you, isn't it?"

"Oh, Holly, for God's sake, that's not what I — "

"Well, I'm not joking. Quit Spyglass or move out. My house isn't just a storage dump for your dead laptops."

Excerpted from The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. Copyright © 2014 by David Mitchell. Excerpted by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved.

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NPR Staff