Firstly, I am a little bit in love with this novel. First Grief is the Thing with Feathers, then The Chimes – it’s been a good few weeks.
Anna Smaill’s debut novel, The Chimes was published earlier this year, and has since been longlisted (although sadly not shortlisted) for the Man Booker Prize 2015. I first heard about it when Smaill’s literary agent gave a talk to my MA course group and, in trying to explain the kind of books he liked, mentioned in passing an upcoming book by an author of his, a dystopian novel in which the world is run by music. I thought then that it sounded rather cool, but I don’t think I fully comprehended how wonderful this book would be.
A young man named Simon travels from the countryside to London after the death of his parents, with nothing in his bag but a recorder and his objectmemories – the possessions he uses to keep hold of the memory that is slowly slipping from him. In fact, memories are slipping from everybody outside a select elite called the Order. Books and writing are banned. People communicate only with speech and music, and their lives are punctuated by the daily Chimes, the music that feels their ears and makes them forget…
It’s surprisingly difficult to explain this novel. The Chimes is so thoroughly immersive that you take the world as it is. You see everything from Simon’s perspective, a very direct first person present tense – and because Simon knows the world he inhabits and because of the fragility of memory in their world, many things are never fully explained. But I love this. That the world is often left unexplained not only makes it feel more full, real, excepted, but lets us inhabit the confusion of Simon and the other characters. They act as they do from bodymemory, from habit, and if we do not always understand why they do what they do, it is often because they don’t either.
I love the character of Simon. He is complex, interesting, and his voice completely immersive. I think my favourite character was Lucien, the fascinating and mysterious leader of the group Simon joins in London. Indeed, Simon and Lucien’s relationship was one of my favourite aspects of the book, developing as it is does the course of the novel. The characters beyond these central two feel human too. Clare is a curious character, and I love the complexities and internal battles of Lucien’s sister Sonja. Even the strange characters Simon and Lucien meet on their journey have their own distinctions and points of distinctive. Everybody feels more than merely their purpose in the book.
Another thing: I was not expecting a love story in The Chimes. It took shape slowly, and for a while I wondered if I was reading too much into their friendship simply because the book I’d just finished was Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl – but as it is, Simon and Lucien’s love story is dealt with beautifully. It is one of the most subtle, tender and lovely romances I’ve read for a long while.
The writing of The Chimes is superb, especially considering the world it seeks to describe. This is a world without written words, a world run by music, a world is which people are constantly forgetting. Simon’s narrative reflects this; he sometimes forgets what he did a few pages ago. Moreover the story is told is his language, the language of his world, which is not always familiar to us. The narrative style is especially inventive in its use of musical imagery. Music is so dominant a force in society that Simon doesn’t talk about walking somewhere slowly or fast but ‘lento’ or ‘presto’; things don’t happen suddenly – they happen ‘subito’; they don’t take three steps across a room but ‘three beats’. I love this. It adds such character and depth to the world Smaill has created.
The world itself is simply fascinating. Indeed, my only criticism of the book as whole is that it could have been longer – I would have loved it to by twice, even triple the length. As I have said, I love this book; I found it thoroughly beautiful, original, moving, gripping, thought-provoking – everything a book should be – but I almost wonder if the plot was too epic for three hundred pages. That being said, it was dealt with very well within that space; I didn’t feel as though the pace was too fast or as though there were any gaps in the plot – but I did want to inhabit this world for longer, to discover even more about its intricacies and complications, about how it came to be.
Still, The Chimes is a truly marvellous book. I have a feeling that it’s the sort of book that could reread again and again with the same enjoyment, yet discovering something new every time. Part of my love for it is due to personal reasons – my love of music, and the fact that there is something faintly Dickensian about the London presented in The Chimes. Yet beyond this, I firmly believe that it is an exceptional novel. I am astounded not only by the beauty and inventiveness of the writing, but by the rich and deep world the book creates. I eagerly await whatever Anna Smaill writes next.
Greatest strength: The world and the premise, without a doubt.
Greatest weakness: As I’ve said, I would have been happy for the book to be two or three times the length. The story and world felt almost too epic to be contained within three-hundred pages. It is an incredible book, but I also think it would have made an incredible trilogy.
Let’s finish on a quote: ‘After Allbreaking, only the pure of heart and hearing were left. They dwelled in the cities. They waited for order; they waited for a new harmony. The words are simple, because words are not to be trusted. Music holds the meaning now. No one is unaccounted for. Even us.’
Note: if you’d like to see me rant about the amazingness of The Chimes in person, I’ve also spoken about it in one of my recent Booktube videos: https://youtu.be/7W6ua9uIUvY?t=210