The Chimes by Anna Smaill

10/10 Memorable

It’s very rare that I start a book, have to stop and then need to go back and try it again later, yet this is exactly what happened with The Chimes. Beginning the book whilst I was up against the final time crunch deadline for my PhD, I found I was just not engaging with the story. I loved the writing as poetry, but completely missing nuances and insights, I was interested by the world, but unsettled by the disconnected nature of the plot.

Having got rid of those looming deadlines and thus being a lot less stressed I recently returned to The Chimes, and was extremely glad I did. Since for someone who loves exploring alien worlds, poetic writing and beauty in darkness, The Chimes had it all and more besides.

Each morning and evening the chimes toll. At Matins the great Carillon sounds out onestory, the tale of how allbreaking drove the world into discord and how the order will create new harmony. At Vespers the chimes ring out, casting their rhythm across the world, washing the people in beauty and destroying all long term memory. This is why everyone keeps their bag of memories close and tries to stick to a trade where their physical body memory will keep them moving, since there is nothing worse than becoming memory lost.

Following his mother’s death, Simon Wythen has undertaken the dangerous journey to London, for reasons he cannot remember, his only guide the snatch of a trade song, his only possessions his bag of MEMORIES. Yet there is more to Simon and his memories than he knows, and a chance meeting with the mysterious and troubled Lucian leads Simon to discover truth about himself, the world and the chimes.

The first thing to say about The Chimes, is that it is not an easy or accessible book, neither however is it simply obscure for obscurity’s own sake or deliberately slow paced. Smaill writes in short, immediate sentences, but with a strange unsettling rhythm, a knack for melody and structure that makes the whole book have a dreamlike, surreal quality, even when describing things as literally earthy as Simon mud larking in the river Thames, or the smells, rhymes and rhythms of street traders. Smaill is both able to write with enough poetry and nuance to make Simon’s world one of immediate experience, and yet at the same time not bog the plot down in description to the point that the thread is lost, indeed one reason why The Chimes is such a difficult book to read is that it requires constant attention from the reader, both to stay abreast of where Simon is and what he’s experiencing, and to fill in gaps of back story and understanding which obviously Simon literally cannot know.

The world Smaill creates is a fascinating and very alien one. Since people have no short term memory, everyone carries a set of object memories to remind them who they are. Likewise, since repetitive body memory is the surest way to keep a person from losing themselves, the England of The Chimes is almost medieval with small villages, guilds and prentices, (not to mention the ritual sounding of The Chimes themselves), since all body memories are strengthened through work and structure.

Yet, despite this there is no sense that people have lost their intelligence, don’t expect any Luddite aspersions about “the horrors of the old world” or pantomime ignorant peasants here.

Another central fact about The Chimes, which might make the book very appealing to some, and yet inaccessible to others, is the fact that the world of the Chimes is bound by music. Simon’s speech is peppered with musical terms, such as subito for suddenly or presto and lento for fast and slow. Furthermore, in a world with no written word, music takes on a new significance, with each trader or guild having their own song, and directions and information being conveyed through melody, indeed solfège; the hand signals for the do-re-mi form of music notation is virtually a separate sign language in itself.

But Smaill doesn’t stop at just the music’s part in the culture, she goes one step further, with music being a constant living breathing presence, used to communicate and even kill, indeed rarely have I come across a writer who can convey in words quite so beautifully the different currents, colours and melodies of music, their emotions and interweaving landscapes, and yet make music itself such a concrete and definitive force in the book’s world, rather than just a side line meditation or a way of aggrandising her characters.

Another thing which makes The Chimes extremely unique is that Smaill has to break so many rules of writing simply by virtue of her central premise. At one stage for example, we have a time skip and are suddenly presented with a character who we’d not previously met simply because according to Simon’s view he couldn’t remember her arriving so she’d always been there, while a significant part of the first half of the novel involves Simon and Lucian trying to piece together what actually happened in the first ten minutes during Simon’s arrival in London, though Smaill is far too careful a writer to make this simply a regurgitation of scenes we’d already seen, and the mix of details we understand being discovered along with new details of Simon’s memory is a fascinating one.

Similarly, later on several characters we know and like are simply abandoned whilst Simon and Lucian go on a journey because (as Lucian points out), they will forget them soon enough.

Yet despite this, Smaill manages to do more than present us with just a particularly intriguing setting. Simon is a complex character with his own history, indeed in many ways finding out about Simon’s own past is just as compelling as finding out about the world. While Smaill does give Simon a special talent, one truly fascinating thing about The Chimes is that it’s never clear how much of Simon’s abilities are his own and how much simply a facet of the world he comes from and the ways he perceives it. For example, early on Simon finds a nugget of palladium (the pale lady as it’s called), and on the strength of that is recruited to Five Rover Pact, a group of scavengers who spend their time salvaging palladium from the river Thames. Yet, despite Simon’s eerie descriptions of how the presence of the pale lady creates pockets of silence, I was never precisely sure to what extent this was Simon’s own perceptions or something strange about the palladium itself. What is even more astounding, is that I didn’t care, indeed The Chimes is one of those very rare books where you take the mysterious at face value simply because it is part of the world, and matters which in other authorial hands might seem like jarring inconsistencies or skated over parts of an illogical system of magic or powers, are simply part of the whole experience, indeed in many ways The Chimes is a book better experienced than analysed, despite the number of intriguing questions it asks.

One particularly fascinating character is Lucian. It only becomes apparent slowly that Lucian is blind, indeed I applaud the way Smaill not only writes a blind character who is neither so helpless that they have no personality, or so awesome that they’re for all intents and purposes not blind at all. Lucian has skills of sound and memory, and in a world where music plays such a major part in everyday life blindness is not perhaps the stigma it is in reality. Yet at the same time, Lucian is not perfect, there are times he falls over things or needs to take someone’s arm. I also appreciate that Smaill is perhaps one of the few writers to recognise that many blind people do have residual vision; the way Smaill describes Lucian’s changing visual acuity in different lighting conditions or different environments sounded very familiar.

Despite this “blind” is not Lucian’s only character trait, and his history and motivations are complex ones which play a large part in the book’s ongoing plot, indeed though Simon is our point of view character, The Chimes is as much Lucian’s story as Simon’s.

It is not just in Lucian that Smaill creates complex three dimensional characters, at one stage we do meet a peripheral character who is deaf, (presenting interesting questions in a world so based around sound), and Smaill also includes a romance between two men. Yet in no cases does she fall into the trap of making any character just “the gay one”, or “the deaf one”, or of seeming to try to be inclusive just for inclusions sake.

Another area where Smaill is to be commended is how she introduces the fact that the world of The Chimes is not just a post-apocalyptic, but a dystopic one. We are perhaps a bit too used to modern dystopic fiction following the style of The Hunger Games, worlds where the oppression of the ruling elite is as overt as a punch to the face. In The Chimes however, the oppression is highly subtle, indeed we barely hear of or see the order until halfway through the novel, and though the order certainly commits its share of atrocities, like most of the rest of the book the atrocities have a bizarre, nightmarish edge to them, not the least because of the rather offbeat way we hear about them. Indeed, even when the horrors become openly visible Smaill’s touch is both subtle and unsettling, whether hinting at a past of sexual abuse of one character, or showing the after affects of the order’s displeasure on another.

One problem I did have with the order, is it often isn’t precisely clear what their goal or philosophy is. We do get a picture of their monastic dedication to pure music and their desire to share this with the world and a direct reference that the destruction of memory caused by the chimes is (in their view), due to people’s weakness, despite their rather hypocritical use of sound proofing to prevent the chimes affecting their own people. However, I did not exactly understand how a desire to dedicate one’s life to music could at the same time cause rigid social control, unless perhaps the order’s control was only a side effect of their true aim, after all there have certainly been plenty of groups in history who have enacted their share of atrocities and destructions of freedom ostensibly for a purer, or nobler end, though I do wish Smaill had made this a little more overt, and thus give some grounding to the questions she asks about freedom and individual perception.

Part of the problem in understanding the order also occurs because the book’s second half does feel slightly rushed.  Whilst much of the book concerns exploring the back story of some characters, what is done with this back story is not explored as thoroughly as it could be, even taking into account the fact that some characters are necessarily simply forgotten. One highly significant character who plays a pivotal and unexpected role in the book’s climax is introduced only towards the end, whilst a seeming deal with the devil (or at least with a capricious and beautifully described old prophetess), which Simon makes three quarters through the book has far less consequence for Simon than it likely should’ve done. A shame since the scene involving said prophetess, the mystique of Simon’s deal and the position she puts him in are truly frightening. I also wish Smaill had explained the full significance of a rhyme Simon learns early on in the book containing names such as Hardy, Odin and Thaw, names which obviously have significance in the world of The Chimes, but whose significance is not adequately explained.

I also, as a minor stylistic point wish Smaill had done a little more of distinguishing the occasions Simon sees what he refers to as “old code”, that is printed writing that he cannot read and the books actual narration, since sometimes it almost sounded as if Simon could read what he was seeing, even though Smaill obviously just wanted to reproduce the shapes of the letters Simon saw without the sense.

Despite the fact that I wish we’d spent a little more time around the order, the book’s climax is absolutely perfect, bringing together character threads, dark poetry and the final choice in quite literally a crashing crescendo, with the book’s musical theme followed through to its ultimate conclusion. Though The Chimes does end on something of a final question, it’s a question which is left for the reader to ponder, rather than making the book feel unfinished. Similarly while the ending isn’t exactly a “happily ever after”, Smaill does manage to indicate some ending point for her characters.

The Chimes is one of the most difficult, and yet most rewarding books I’ve read for quite some time. Breaking so many rules of writing to explore its central premise, yet blending together dark poetry, a truly unique post-apocalyptic world, love, music and memory into one great symphonic whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts, and an experience which you won’t easily forget.

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