Book Reviews

The Chimes * Anna Smaill

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? Chimes is always different, and even after the thousands of times, I couldn’t venture to say what it’s like.

The Chimes is set in a reimagined London, in a world where people cannot form new memories, and the written word has been forbidden and destroyed.

In the absence of both memory and writing is music.

In a world where the past is a mystery, each new day feels the same as the last, and before is blasphemy, all appears lost. But Simon Wythern, a young man who arrives in London seeking the truth about what really happened to his parents, discovers he has a gift that could change all of this forever.

A stunning literary debut by poet and violinist Anna Smaill, The Chimes is a startlingly original work that combines beautiful, inventive prose with incredible imagination.

Along the horizon, the fields are lines of grey that get darker as they reach the sky. I stare at them hard to make a picture I can take, but it’s only objectmemories you can trust in the end. And I’m carrying those in the bag already. You can’t force them to flower either. Like bulbs, they show their secrets in their own time.

I really like the passage where he’s walking down a busy food-stall street and the different aromas sing to her their own tune:

A plaintive three-note cry from a sweet-potato man who sings as he pedals a bellow wheel. A tune of golden meat pasties sung by a fat woman with a wink. There are tunes for sandwiches and for potatoes fried in goosefat, and there is a seabrimmed song sung by a boy with dark hair and a shucking knife. A song with a gleam of pearl in it for the oysters he sells. The oysters are from Essex, the song says. Like me.

That made me hungry for some potatoes in goosefat.

Thematically, this book is a sibling of The Buried Giant. Both explore the meaning of memory and how it shapes who we are. Whether the mess and ‘dischord’ of our past, shackles and binds us. Whereas order and free from memory we are saved from ugliness and pain. Would you give up your memories if you could? Would you give up the pain, sorrow, hurt, fear, you have experienced? But what if the cost was also the love, joy, contentment you had also experienced?

And subito I am with my mother. We are standing in a forcinghouse. She is singing the song to me in notes that I repeat after her.
In the quiet days of power,
seven ravens in the tower.
When you clip the raven’s wing,
then the bird begins to sing.
When you break the raven’s beak,
then the bird begins to speak.
When the Chimes fill up the sky,
then the ravens start to fly.
Gwillum, Huginn, Cedric, Thor,
Odin, Hardy, nevermore.

This is not a long book, but it took me a long time to read it. The language is so precise, intentional, and beautiful that I just sank down into it. Often have I lamented that I’ve not found a book that really captures the impact of music on people. The problem is that there is a bit too much musical terminology here – if you aren’t versed in music (and I am not), that can drag. And the problem with a fantasy that drags is that it gives you too much time to take a step back and witness all the gaps in the foundation. My willing suspension of disbelief became less willing and less suspended at such times.

The tune starts with a glee and a lilt. The words don’t say much, but I can follow the melody’s meaning. It is about when innocence is really blindness. How when you want something very much, so bad you can taste it, your mind likes to trick you that it’s in your grasp. That is the gleeful, lilting, funny bit. But then the second theme comes, and that’s bitter. It is about when the beauty is false and yet you still somehow desire and still cannot have it.

Interweaving musical and regular language, although fairly interesting and original, bogged down the reading process and – as I don’t consider myself a musical person at all– it made me think that I was constantly missing some key piece of information. The second half of the story felt excessively rushed and I thought that some issues were definitely left unresolved and it was a bit bland. The plot became so generic (a handful of young people must destroy a totalitarian state by traveling to the center of power and attempting a raid on its heart). I think we’ve all read that one before many many times.

3/5

About the Author:

Anna Smaill was born in Auckland in 1979. A classically trained violinist, she is the author of one book of poetry ( The Violinist in Spring , VUP 2005) and her poems have been published and anthologised in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. She has lived and worked in both Tokyo and London, and now lives in New Zealand with her husband, novelist Carl Shuker, and their daughter.

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