The Chimes by Anna Smaill, Sceptre, ISBN 9781444794533,
What if we didn’t remember things? What if memory meant so little to us that we let things go, not even knowing what they were? What if our world was so full of music, both beautiful and dangerous, that it crowded out our memories?
That’s the amazing world of The Chimes.
I’ve already burbled a bit on the radio about how good The Chimes is and now it’s time for a bit more.
The Chimes begins with Simon, our hero, entering London. Simon’s London isn’t the same as ours, it becomes clear. This London is full of music and music is the communal form of communication, and has taken over writing and reading. But the music holds dangers as well as beauty and something is very wrong with people. The music has taken their capacity for forming memories. Simon joins a scavenging gang, trawling the Under (Underground? Under the Thames?) for the mysterious metal Palladium, and meets Lucien who recognises that Simon has a gift for holding on to memories. Why has Simon come to London?
Chimes is like a fist. It unclutches, opens. Starts like a fist, but then it bursts like a flowering. Who can say if it’s very slow or very fast?
I loved The Chimes. Smaill is a stunning writer and the world she creates is not only completely believable but absolutely entrancing. The Chimes introduces its readers to a wholly unique world and to a wholly unique kind of language too. Smaill uses musical words and definitions in new ways, sending this reader to Google several times over. She reintroduces us to the mysteries of music but also to the mysteries of language.
“Code was a way of keeping thoughts still. Of helping them stay in formation. Everybody used to understand it, and they could write in it too. It meant that you could return to the ideas when you wanted. Code is a kind of memory.”
As a reader you get the distinct impression that Smaill is in love with both words and music. Her characters and storyline are delicately handled but carry real emotional impact and there are some serious questions here about the value of both memory and forgetting. The story slightly feels like it runs out of puff at the end but I did wonder if the beginning has so much impact that the end almost suffers in comparison. And I confess I didn’t want to leave this world.
Smaill is very reminiscent of Elizabeth Knox in that she seems to rise above considerations of genre, even though this would be easily pigeonholed as a fantasy or dystopian fiction. There are definite shades of Mieville and, to me, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.
Smaill is a New Zealander living in the UK and her writing reflects a universality. This is Smaill’s first book and, by god, I hope it won’t be her last. The Chimes is a beautiful, lyrical modern classic.