Life’s short. We all know that. So… like many others roaming this planet I decided some time ago, if I wasn’t enjoying a book after I’d read about one-third, I’d put it aside. However… there are always exceptions to that adage-which-should-be-a-rule. Fortunately I’d glanced at some previous reviews of The Chimes by Anna Smaill before opening the book as others commented on their initial struggle, but recommended readers persevere.
So, my advice for anyone embarking on The Chimes… Hang. In. There.
It’s not an easy read and it takes some getting used to, as the entire book is a bit like one big metaphor. But it’s most definitely worth it in the end.
All becomes clear (well, as clear as the murky water of the Thames) at page 90 when Smaill finally provides a bit of context. Thank god.
The Chimes is set in London at a time when memories no longer exist. Some sort of apocalyptic event (the Allbreaking) resulted in humans being unable to retain memories. The written word (code) is forbidden. Stories have been destroyed.
The sounding of Chimes (morning and night) ‘steals’ memories through the music of the Carillon. It also shares Onestory, or guiding principles of sorts — akin, I think, to the role the Bible plays/ed in the lives of many.
We meet Simon, our narrator, as he’s on his way to London after the death of his parents. He has his objectmemories — things or tokens which help him remember important events. Like his mother’s death.
There’s something he’s supposed to do on arriving in London, but he soon forgets what it was. Instead he joins a pact, or group of scavengers led by the charismatic Lucien. They rely on bodymemories (kinda like muscle memory I guess) to undertake their daily hunt for pieces of ‘The Lady’ destroyed during Allbreaking many years before.
After a year in London Simon’s realising he’s not quite like everyone else as he sometimes remembers even without his objectmemories. He’s able to see and recall memories in a way others can’t. He doesn’t understand why this is the case but thinks it was what brought him to London. If only he could remember why.
It eventually becomes evident that Lucien and Simon meeting, was very much kismet. After much scene-setting (and what a dark and dire world Smaill paints!), we’re focused on Lucien and Simon’s quest. Interestingly, although we only receive partial glimpses into their histories, both characters are sufficiently interesting and robust to hold our attention, despite the complexity of the narrative unfolding around them.
The plot itself was probably the most challenging element of this novel. I need to add the disclaimer here that I am most certainly not a fan of the fantasy /sci fi genre or dystopian fiction.
There’s some weird part of my brain which balks at people just making shit up – words, languages, worlds and events. I know that doesn’t make sense but it’s predominantly why I steer clear of the genre. For example, although the premise of The Chimes is very clever, I kept getting sidetracked by the feasibility of the book’s events, extent of the Chimes’ power and logistics of it all. I might admire the imagination of the likes of JRR Tolkien or George (RR) Martin, but struggle with the practicality and pragmatics.
Who would have thought I’d prefer reality?!
My difficulty with the plot aside, Smaill’s world-without-memories played havoc with this little obsessive’s overthinking mind. Given my father’s dementia and impact it had on our lives, the issue of memory is a biggie for me.
How much do our memories – past events and experiences – shape who we are today: the decisions we make; and the actions we take?
Yonks ago I was rewatching a TV show (Dead Like Me) when a quote jumped out at me: the fact that, in the end, all we have are thoughts and memories. Talk about screwing with my mind. Smaill builds on that by removing our memories – taking Eckhart Tolle’s ‘living in the now’ philosophy one scary step further by giving us no choice in the matter.
Smaill is a classically trained violinist and her passion for music is very evident – not only in the plot but the beautiful prose.
And for me, the power of The Chimes lay in Smaill’s lyrical writing. Obviously she’s chosen language which promotes melody – in keeping with the theme of the book. But very specifically she’s replaced some commonly used words: quick/ly becomes presto; slow/ly becomes lento; silent/ly becomes tacet; matins – morning and vespers – evening; and so forth.
Obviously someone with a knowledge of music (or Latin) would have a huge advantage when reading this novel. As for me, I played the recorder badly for a year at school and had to write letters on the music sheets rather than read the notes themselves. #EveryGoodBoyDeservesFruit
Anyhoo… apologies for such a long review, but… CliffsNotes version: The Chimes offers readers something very special and very rare. It did however, frustrate the hell out of me at times and had me pondering my own ignorance. I hope it’s not the case that many find it too clever or impenetrable, but if you get started I’d encourage you to persevere.
The Chimes by Anna Smaill was released in Australia via Hachette on 12 February 2015.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.