In dystopian novel The Chimes – set in a familiar yet eerily off-kilter England – the written word has been forbidden and the ability to remember forgotten. In the place of both writing and memories is music.
Citizens congregate every morning and evening to listen to the Chimes – an instrument of far-reaching and malevolent power. Music is a tool of expression, a form of beauty, but also of great oppression. The Chimes steals and shatters memories.
The story begins when narrator Simon arrives in London from rural Essex after the death of his mother. He is frightened, alone, and his memories are fading. He clings to his “memory bag” – through which emotional recall is triggered by meaningful items – yet each day appears to be a mystery in which he must find himself anew.
Readers, like Simon, are entirely in the dark. With him they battle this chaos and confusion until slowly a pattern emerges from the scattered parts of the jigsaw. As Simon’s memory returns he learns that he has a rare gift. And with the help of blind friend Lucien, he must use it to topple the totalitarian regime that despises discord.
In this way, the first third of the book makes for slow and disjointed reading. But as Simon’s realisation dawns the pace speeds up, morphing into a fantasy novel reminiscent at times of The Lord of the Rings. In this regard The Chimes follows a well-worn plot: an underdog must journey on a quest and in the process discovers himself.
What sets The Chimes apart is its language. New Zealand author Anna Smaill is a classically trained violinist and a poet; both influences provide her debut novel with an unusual lyricism and a hypnotic rhythmic beat. Words are replaced by their musical terms, so that “subito” stands in for suddenly and “presto” for quickly. Meanwhile, the novel often takes the form of a poem: there are sing-song passages, rhymes, and words cascading down the page like a waterfall (one on each line) or sentences written upside down.
Woven into this lush language and deeply imagined world are questions about the burden of memory. Namely, are people happier not having to remember? To Smaill’s credit she provides a satisfying ending to what becomes a gripping read, but she is brave enough to leave such philosophical threads untied. Yes, The Chimes is hard work. But its rewards are worth it. EA
Sceptre, 400pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 21, 2015 as "Anna Smaill, The Chimes ". Subscribe here.