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I could tell The Chimes was written by a poet, as soon as I opened it and started reading – long before I discovered Anna Smaill has also had a book of poetry published. The language here is lyrical, with the introduction of words that add to its strangeness, the narrative necessarily fragmented and filled with sensory impressions. But it’s perhaps because Smaill is a violinist, that in her first novel, she’s deeply imagined what a world without writing, but full of music, might be like.
She describes a dystopian future, where Britain’s democratic government has been swept away by a catastrophic event called the ‘blasphony', and replaced with an autocratic, musical ruling elite in Oxford, known as the Order. The written word has been replaced with the ‘Carillon’, a vast musical instrument made from palladium, the ‘pale Lady’, a rare metallic element, which sweeps away people’s memory, leaving them with a life that feels the same each and every day. At times, the pitch of ‘the chimes’ causes physical collapse followed by death
Anna Smaill Photo Credit - Natalie Graham
Simon Wythern has inherited a gift from his mother, who died of ‘chimesickness'. Like her, he can see other people’s memories. Now, he's heading for London, his memory bag over his shoulder and a melody in his head that leads him along…
‘You going in to be prentissed?’
I shake my head. ‘I’m going in to trade.’
He studies my farmclothes and my single roughcloth bag and is tacet awhile. ‘And a ride back?’ he says. ‘You’ll be looking for one, I suppose?’
I meet his look and there’s nothing in my eyes. I don’t need a ride back. I have a name and a song to find, a thread to follow. But it’s not something to share. With my gaze I dare him to ask again, but he turns to the front and hitches the reins. We go forward and the cart’s bumping goes through me…
Simon joins a pact of urchins, run by a boy called Lucien. They mudlark the Thames riverbank and search ‘the under’, the abandoned subterranean city tunnels, for the Lady, which they can trade for food, not knowing that this trade maintains the Carillon which oppresses them.
Simon’s friendship with enigmatic Lucien becomes a beautifully described love affair, as they begin to piece together the memories Simon’s mother left him, with the memories Lucien has of being a gifted musician in the Order.
Rather like Pullman’s His Dark Materials, every small child in The Chimes learns to play an instrument and finds the meaning of themselves through the music they make. This creates a focus for the novel, a point we can understand about this complex world;
I pick up my recorder and I start to play, even though I don’t know how to make the voice that is missing. When I have played all my feeling into the first part of the tune, I still don’t know, but by then it is too late and I no longer care, so I just play it. I play it high and reckless and free so that it flies above all the others. I play it with some of the anger I feel and some that I throw in for extra. I play a voice that has never known anything except for luck and beauty…
The Thames from Oxford to London
It took me a little time to get used to Smaill’s use of music as a controlling, menacing force, but I loved the way she used musical terminology in her character’s speech. Above the story, which starts out as an absorbing read, is a wider theme of shared memory and how important that is for a cohesive society, and the dystopia she creates is very believable.
But as Lucien and Simon travel to Oxford, bent of destroying the Carillon, the plotting thins and loses its connection with the body of the story. When Smaill needed to ‘up’ the dramatic tension, as we reach the climactic end of the book, her plotting doesn’t quite succeed as well and her rich writing style. I can vouch for how hard it is to create a convincing, plausible and yet thrilling end to a story, tying in the loose ends needed to be tied, while yet not knotting them up too tightly or letting them unravel completely, and keeping the reader believing in the tale and its inhabitants. I wished Smaill had spent a few months sorting out what was wrong with her denouement, but it didn’t stop me enjoying the world she’s invented, the language she uses, and the glorious characters who inhabit The Chimes.