2015. Sceptre. Hardcover. 291 pages.
In a nutshell:
In this novel’s dystopian London, music is at the core of everything. The government uses it in specific ways to control people, but it is also how information and directions are conveyed. The written word is forbidden. The ability to form and keep memories is difficult, and people keep collections of objects in order to hold on to what few memories they have.
Simon, a young teenager, travels from the country to London, following a melody his mother taught him to use in case of emergency. When the person he was sent to find refuses to help him, the stranded boy falls in with a crew of young scavengers who search the river and underground tunnels for precious nuggets of palladium to sell at the market. The crew’s leader, Lucien, has a mysterious past, and brings Simon into his plans for a better future.
The Chimes was on the Man Booker longlist last year and was a selection for my book club.
- The author’s use of musical terms is immediately striking. An example:
Around one toll after Sext we set down in Romford, where the carter buys lunch of cheese, bread, dried blood sausages. He spears one, passes it to me. I eat presto, like I don’t remember my last meal. Then we are back on the A-road, straight as a viol string stretched under the sky. The further we go, the wider the road and the thicker the knots of people. And with each step closer the city’s music grows.
At times, I found this intriguing and clever. At its worst, the creativity of the writing could obscure what was happening in the plot.
- The author also uses unusual spellings: mettle instead of metal, poliss instead of police, prentiss instead of apprentice, eletrick instead of electric. And different mashed together words for things: stickwrap is plastic, crosshouse is a church. I think the idea behind these alternative spellings and words is that they originate from the lack of the written word and lack of collective history, but I found it too precious for my tastes.
- The way the author uses music in the world building is ambitious, but Smaill falls into the habit of most YA dystopian novels with all the ominous concepts described with proper nouns: Onestory, Allbreaking, the Pale, the Carillon, etc and of course the bad guys are just called the Order.
- Various clues in the narrative indicate that there once was the world as we know it – with cars, computers and everything. So it’s completely baffling to me that this new society has medieval / Renaissance trappings. The people follow the canonical hours (Vespers, Matins), but without any religious connection. Their instruments are trumpet, viol, organ, etc. (no saxophones or drumsets, no jazz or blues). Their food is all along the lines described in the excerpt above, so I guess the foods of London’s diverse communities didn’t survive. Now, granted, this is not the first dystopian YA novel that has unexplained cultural regressions, but there was an affectedness here that bugged.
Plot / Characters
- The plot is unevenly paced, with a lot of fast developments occurring toward the end that were not entirely connected to the novel’s somewhat slow build-up. The development of some characters has no payoff while other characters’ deaths don’t have the emotional weight the narrative aims for, due to character underdevelopment.
- I did like that the romance between Lucien and Simon was handled naturally and without fanfare, but I can’t say that I found either of them all that interesting.
Overall: Though some credit is due to Smaill for originality, I found The Chimes to be a mixed-bag that I struggled to get through. That said, the other book club members liked it better than I did, so your mileage may vary.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Lizzy’s Literary Life – “. . . fault lines do appear about 2/3rds of the way through when the pace picks up. The denouement is rushed and I must say a tad convenient.”
The Speculative Scotsman – “Certainly, Smaill’s experience as a poet come through clearly in her perfectly poised prose. There’s a real richness to her images; a depth to her descriptions; her dialogue practically sparkles; and the structure of the whole thing sings.”
Teresa of Shelf Love – “This was one of the more original pieces of speculative fiction I’ve read in quite a while.”