Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 10, 2015

The Chimes, by Anna Smaill

The ChimesLonglisted for the Booker this year, The Chimes is clever writing.  By the time I had worked out that it was dystopian fiction and that I could expect the same old tropes, it was too late and I was absorbed by its fictional world even as the novel rolled on in its predictable way…

The novel overrides its genre origins because Smaill is a wordsmith of considerable power and because of its central conceit: a world without memory or words, controlled by a regime which uses music to do it.  As you can guess from the cover art  (✔ !) the novel is set in London, where the city as we know it has been destroyed in the Allbreaking and people live much as they might have done in Medieval times – foraging, bartering, living in rudimentary dwellings and hoarding their candles.  Socially, people sign up as apprentices to eventually work in guilds and those that don’t, work in scavenger gangs.  There are occasional vicious fights over territory.

None of this is new or original, but the collective amnesia imposed by the music of the Carillon is an intriguing variation on Orwellian thought police.  The day is organised as it was in medieval times, using canonical hours: matins is for Onestory which is a daily retelling in music of the dischord that brought the old world to ruin; vespers is for Chimes, an overwhelming musical imposition of order which ends shrieking at an unendurable pitch enough to bring you to your knees, put you in your place.  Matins reminds them that the old ways of the written word and memories are now blasphony; Vespers ensures compliance with a kind of auditory ECT so that each day is a new day like a world where everyone has Alzheimer’s disease. And as in medieval times, it is a carillon which is used to communicate with unlettered people, as a warning device.  (Carillons can sound sweet and harmonious, or downright awful.)

People manage their days with bodymemory based on automatized routines, and, poignantly, they keep memory bags containing objectmemories which are bits and pieces of things that they want to remember, though inevitably these would-be reminders fail and offer only a vague sense of consolation and identity.  People who don’t have even these objectmemories are the pitiful memorylost…

From his store of items, Simon, the central character and narrator of the story, who cannot even remember the day on which he came to London after his parents died, must try to resurrect the reasons why he kept them.

Tonight I have no patience for the currents of chance and luck that might bring the right memory to my hands. I close my eyes and I take hold of my memory bag and turn it upside down.

After a while I open my eyes.  What I see is a collection of junk. Strange objects: a shell, a spoon, a paralighter, a muddy burberry, a dog collar. An old leather-bound scorebook. A block of wood with pencil-drawn figures. A scrap of paper ripped down one side.  A bar of chocolate, a heavy, rusted mettle lock. (p.105)

Because, yes, Simon is the special one, born with a gift that the ruling elite do not want him to have, because they, the Order, brook no challenge to their omnipotent rule.  That is why ‘code’ is blasphony and its significance dawns on Simon when he finds his guru Lucien and learns to remember :

‘My mother told me about a time before Chimes.’  I feel the bite of the blasphony.  The biggest one of them all.  ‘Before Chimes they could write down words so that the ideas stayed in formation.  That’s what code was. Everyone knew how to write and read in it.  But when Chimes came, no one could keep the words still anymore. And at the same time as the words died, birds died too.  And memory flew away.  (p. 143)

Simon’s gang scavenges palladium (a rare silvery-white metal) known as the lady from  the under (the ruined tube tunnels), and they trade it for supplies.  This palladium is used by the Order to maintain the Carillon, but (unlike in real life, apparently) its toxicity causes sickness to those who work with it.  But this is, of course, not the only peril…

Like all totalitarian regimes, the Order hates mess:

‘They can’t stand mess,’ I say again. ‘Human mess.  They can’t abide the things that don’t fit into a perfect harmony, a tidy chord.  They wanted to perfect us.  Their music doesn’t have a place for mistakes and errors, for people who love the ones they’re not meant to love, for babies with noses that run and those who are deaf and alone.  In the end it can’t fit in things like grief and loss and stickiness and dirt.’ (p.213)

(Interesting, isn’t it, the way the nastiest totalitarian regimes (Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Communist China) have been so fond of classical music?)

The language of music is everywhere so it takes a little getting used to if it’s not already part of your vocabulary. The narrator tells us that he moves lento (slowly), presto (fast); there is a guildsong and there are children’s nursery rhymes.  The characters ‘sing’ the routes along which they travel in a way perhaps similar to Aboriginal songlines described by Bruce Chatwin.  If the Booker is still demanding so-called accessibility for its winners, The Chimes may disqualify itself.

But apart from that, is The Chimes Bookerworthy on its merits?  Well, Ivor Indyk has something to say about ‘the cult of the middlebrow’ in the current Sydney Review of Books.  I wouldn’t put The Chimes in the same league as some of the Bookers I’ve read in the past, and I don’t think it tells us anything that Orwell hasn’t already warned us about before, but Smaill creates a convincing world and the characterisation is well-done.  I’d have to read some of the other nominations to see how this one stands among them, but the announcement of the shortlist is less than a week away and I’ve only got three of them on the TBR, much less have time to read them beforehand…

Author: Anna Smaill
Title: The Chimes
Publisher: Sceptre (an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton/Hachette) 2015
ISBN: 9781444794533
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings.

Availability

Fishpond: The Chimes

 


Responses

  1. The cover of this book is absolutely beautiful. I have this one on my to-read list for awhile and just love the premise. Great review. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

  2. […] Patricia Grace (Penguin Random House) on my TBR The Chimes by Anna Smaill (Hodder & Stoughton) See my review Coming Rain by Stephen Daisley (Text Publishing) See my review The Invisible Mile by David Coventry […]

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