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The Chimes Paperback – April 4, 2017
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"A highly original dystopian masterpiece, an intricately imagined, exquisitely invoked world in which music instills order and ravages individuality . . . Smaill is a poet and a classically trained violinist, and both these skills shine in this lyrical novel steeped in the language of music . . . clearly marking her as an exciting new writer to watch."
―Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March
"something strikingly new"―Lit Hub
"Smaill's clever use of musical terms in her characters' speech adds to the immersive quality of the work, and her melodious prose lures the reader like a pied piper. With literary trappings but a solidly speculative heart, The Chimes is a cantata of pure delight."―Jaclyn Fulwood, Shelf Awareness (Starred Review)
"Smaill is a classically trained musician - a violinist, to be precise - and it shows on every page of The Chimes. Not only does music saturate the book's setting, it fills its themes and prose . . . For all the poetry and lyricism, The Chimes is a solid, suspenseful adventure story at heart, complete with a quest, a prophecy, and a simmering, deeply moving romance . . . lucid yet dreamlike writing pulls it through. Not to mention her deft, tender characterization . . . [and] profound ideas and images echoing throughout."
"To call The Chimes striking is, I dare say, to underplay what might be the most distinctive debut of the decade."
"Cleverly orchestrated and poignantly conveyed throughout."―The Guardian
"One of a kind, both in its dystopian landscape and use of gorgeous language throughout . . . Fans of the eloquence and imagery of Jeff VanderMeer's 'Southern Reach' trilogy and the spare desolation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road will adore this original work."
―Megan McArdle, Library Journal (Starred Review, Debut of the Month)
"A melodic, immersive dystopian tale set in a London where writing is lost and song has replaced story . . . Entrancingly poetic and engagingly plotted, this is a story that brims with heart and soul."
"The Chimes is a remarkable debut. It's inventive, beautifully written, and completely absorbing. I highly recommend it."
―Kevin Powers, author of The Yellow Birds
"Atmospheric, intensely-imagined strangeness."―Daily Mail
"One of the top literary novels of the year. Set in a world where music has replaced the written word it's a lyrical, entrancing story which ramps up to a fast-paced finale."
About the Author
Anna Smaill is a classically trained violinist and published poet. Born in Auckland in 1979, she holds an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters (Wellington), an MA in English Literature from the University of Auckland and a PhD in contemporary American poetry from University College London. She is the author of one book of poetry, The Violinist in Spring, and her poems have been published and anthologized 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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New Zealander Anna Smaill is a poet and musician. Both are evident in the voice of her debut novel (currently on the Man Booker longlist), which may be the most original piece of writing I have encountered all year. It drew me in eagerly to a genre I normally avoid -- dystopian fiction -- delighting me with the joy of hearing old things with a new ear. She imagines London following some cataclysm that has destroyed buildings, shattered glass, and annihilated electricity. Books everywhere have been burned; any occasional words that turn up are treated as code that no one can decipher. And without books is without memory. Some people carry around a few memoryobjects to remind them of special things, and retain some bodymemory of familiar tasks, but when these lose their power they join the increasing ranks of the memorylost.
Only music remains. The ruined churches are curious relics known as crosshouses, but as in the Age of Faith, the people's lives are marked by the canonical hours -- prime, sext, nones -- and the chiming of the bells. Two occasions are especially important: Onestory at matins and the Chimes at evensong. Onestory brings the entire population together in a unison recital of the myth of their salvation from discord: "In the time of dischord, worship only words. Greedy is the lingua. Greedy are the swords." The Chimes at even, elaborately contrapuntal, is a reward for the work of the day, but an evanescent one, soon forgotten. The morning Onestory wipes the slate clean; even the concept of a past is blasphony.
But there are other uses for music. Music -- or its visual equivalent, the hand-signs of solfège -- can be used for simple conversation. People of exceptional hearing, such as Smaill's protagonist, a young teenage boy named Simon, can use music as a kind of map to find their way around. Though thrilled by the aural tapestry of London when he first arrives from the country (in the passage quoted above), what speaks to him most clearly is the call of a mysterious silence, which draws him to the river. There he meets up with a pact of other young people led by a blind boy named Lucien, whose musical gifts are even more remarkable. Each day, the five of them run in the under -- the network of disused tunnels under London -- prospecting for things that they can sell, guided by melodies and rhythms that show their way in the darkness and keep them together. But in his growing closeness to Lucien, Simon finds that music can have an even more important purpose: to help him store and recover memory.
This would make a marvelous gift for young adult readers, who would delight in Smaill's strange language -- her combination of antique spellings and neologisms, and the persistence of musical terms throughout, even if they did not at first understand them. They would also be at home with the idea of the quest: Lucien and Simon going upriver to Oxford in an attempt to enter the Citadel and break the power of the Order. I think they would also take the sexuality in their stride. Smaill takes a while to give us the name, or even the gender, of her protagonist. At first, I just assumed she was a girl, and there is a curious androgynous quality that remains throughout the novel that gives everything an erotic charge. Yet it is not something you would classify in terms of gay and straight; it is quite simply love.
But this is not just a Young Adult novel; it is for anyone who loves language, and even more for those who know music. For Smaill's book is also about the qualities that bind us together as humans: the history we share and the stories we tell. Its glory is that, though the author writes of a time when the written word is under threat, she still uses words with the virtuoso skill of a poet. And the paradox of her view of music as simultaneously an instrument of enforced conformity and the song of the free spirit is simply brilliant, as is her insight to cast this in historical terms. The London that Smaill describes is essentially that of 1700, a city of street markets, guilds, and prentisses, where the music is played by highboy, viol, clarionet, trompet, and tambour. And the music of the Chimes, however elaborate, is all written under the strict rules of what, in the early eighteenth century, was known as "species counterpoint" (think Bach and his predecessors). The morning Onestory gives the "cantus firmus," or ground from which the elaborate polyphony of the evening Chimes -- and by extension the lives of the entire population -- may never depart. Though set in the future, this is a society caught in a time warp. The final scene, when Simon and Lucien reach Oxford, and unsanctified hands fall on the keyboard of the Carillon, makes a brilliantly effective climax in its own terms -- but musicians will hear the entire history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century music compressed into a few pages, and they will marvel.
As a postscript, let me offer a quatrain from a poem Anna Smaill wrote in 2001, about the daily tug of the tide against the sea wall. She was a master of words even then, and it is clear that the themes of loss and forgetting have been with her for a long time:
There is no reminder of the breaking,
the halving of the sense at reason’s falling,
the excavation of the heart’s regions
as it is emptied out.
People have no memory from one day to the next. They can remember how to do things like eat and tie their shoes, but they don’t remember what happened last week, where they’re from, etc.
Music is an integral, crucial part of their lives. The characters move “lento” or “presto,” or speak “piano.” Almost everyone can sing and or play an instrument, and it soon becomes apparent why. Merchants who travel into London to sell produce whistle or sing a distinct tune. Remembering the music, they can run it backwards to return to their home village. If they lose that tune, they can end up wandering the countryside with no memory of who they are. They also carry small items, like a key or a dog collar, to use as memory triggers.
Each day at matins a massive carillon plays music in a faint echo of religiosity – the Chimes. Everyone in London stops what they’re doing to listen.
The story concerns a boy, the narrator, who has travelled to London to find something, but has lost the memory of what it was. He falls in with a gang of Dickensian street urchins who make money by scouring the Thames, and the maze of tunnels beneath the city, for nuggets of palladium.
Slowly it becomes apparent that the Chimes somehow short circuit human memory. The bits of palladium they find are the atomized wreckage of another carillon, destroyed in some ancient conflict. The boy begins to realize that he can train his memory and defeat the effects of the Chimes. With another boy who has the same ability, he travels to the carillon, in the Citadel run by the Order, on a mission to destroy it.
Had someone described this plot to me I probably wouldn’t have read the book, but in fact I really liked it. The writing is feral and pungent. I felt I could smell the musty tunnels beneath London and hear the gang leader’s “comeallye” whistle. The story begins slowly but gathers pace at the end. I was never bored.
If you like certainty and easy explanations and a clear denouement you won’t like this book. There’s no description of the war; how the carillon broadcasts the Chimes all over southern England without electricity; how this society can function at all when the majority of people can’t remember much of anything; how the narrator can “hear” palladium; how he can read other people’s memories in a sort of trance; and if you don’t know music you’ll probably want to keep a dictionary nearby to help explain some of the things the characters do.
Finally, the ending seemed a little rushed to me, and it left a lot of questions unanswered. Nevertheless a good read.