London comes alive like never before in Anna Smaill’s deeply unique debut, The Chimes: a dystopian love story about a boy who comes to the capital on a quest to find out what happened to his late parents, and why. Along the way unspeakable secrets will be revealed about a world in which “words are not to be trusted” and memories are temporary—the unintended consequences of a musical final solution:
At the height of dischord, at Allbreaking, sound became a weapon. In the city, glass shivered out of context, fractured white and peeled away from windows. The buildings rumbled and fell. The mettle was bent and twisted out of tune. The water in the river stood in a single wave that never toppled. What happened to the people? The people were blinded and deafened. The people died. The bridge between Bankside and Paul’s shook and stirred, or so they say. The people ran but never fast enough. After Allbreaking, only the pure of heart and hearing were left. They dwelled in the cities. They waited for order; they waited for a new harmony.
It never arrived. But now, if you listen closely, you can hear the strains of a beautiful new movement beginning…
Though he doesn’t consider himself such, Simon Wythern is one of the lucky ones. Same as any other person, he forgets everything that’s happened to him during the day over the course of Chimes each night, yet our orphan is able to impress his most exceptional experiences into objects, and carry them with him in this way. He keeps his objectmemories close, of course, and allows himself to indulge in one each evening:
In the depths of the roughcloth, none of the shapes has any meaning. They’re just things I reach for like a strandpicker in thamesmuck. When my hands takes hold of the right one, a picture will flash up true as a bright note, clear as an unmudded stream. I don’t know how it works. Maybe the object comes first; then the memory follows. Or maybe I choose the memory and my hand finds the right object to match. I do one each night only. And I can’t take it with me into the morning.
Smartly, Smaill introduces us to The Chimes’ protagonist in a series of short chapters—reflective of his abhorrently abbreviated recall—named after the miscellany of things Simon opts to make into objectmemories: a Burberry, a bar of chocolate and a riverstone, to begin with. Inevitably, he quickly forgets what each item represents—as indeed do we—until their respective contents are recovered later in Smaill’s tale, when his working memory has lengthened, and likewise the chapters of The Chimes.
In the interim, Simon almost loses himself to the hubbub of London:
The official conversations are loudest—roll calls for choir and orkestra rehearsals, poliss warnings, the announcement of a funeral mass. Below those are striding public conversations—calls for new prentisses, invites to buy food or beer. Then threading through narrow and low are the in-between melodies. The songs people sing piano to their loved ones, calling to their minds the good things of home and reminding them of the streets to take to get there. […] That’s when I hear something else. Deep under the sound-fabric of the city, somewhere to the south—a voice of silver announcing itself. Like a hole of silence down there, a rip in the hubbub. I do not understand what it means.
The last thing Simon wants is to become one of the mindless memorylost, and he’s made precious little progress in his aforementioned mission, so he takes on a job of sorts, the better to build bodymemory. He becomes a pactrunner, downsounding London’s dirty waterways for palladium: a soundproofing mettle worth its weight in tokens to the ominous Order.
Perhaps a year passes in this fashion, as many more surely would have if it weren’t for the pact’s blind leader, Lucien. He sees something special in Simon; something that might mean a new harmony is possible, after all. Together, then, they strike out into the countryside to discover the meaning of the odd objectmemories Simon has of his mother: a woman evidently able to experience the objectmemories of others. From these, Lucien believes, a true story could in time be told; a song sung to show the memorylost et al that there may yet be another way.
To call The Chimes striking is I dare say to underplay what might be the most distinctive debut of the decade. 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. A percussive pulse thrums through each and every bit of this book, building and bridging and breaking between scenes, lending the whole piece a coherency that its parts would lack in lieu of that accent.
Smaill’s language is also utterly lovely, up to and including her substitution of expressions that speak to speed with opportune musical terminology. Instead of suddenly, shocks come “subito”; “presto” stands in for quickly; “lento” for slowly; and so on. Short the fact that words are untrustworthy in the world of The Chimes, there’s no explanation of this difference except the context in which we encounter it.
Needless to note, it’s not an easy novel to read—like poetry, it requires patience and perseverance—but “if you listen right, the whole thing has its rhythm,” and its rhythm is the rhythm of life: a powerful beat that puts a tingle in your fingers and a tingle in your feet.
Sure, Smaill puts a foot or two wrong in other respects: the early going is a touch too obscure to reel in readers in the way this book should, the motives of the Order are so muddy that the last act doesn’t entirely satisfy, and though Simon and Lucien are on the receiving end of plenty of attention and development, the author all but abandons several secondary characters at the turning point of the text, as if to say, who cares what happened to Claire? Well I did, damn it!
That said, these are minor missteps in light of the many and various ways in which Smaill’s debut dazzles.
Is there solfege for the word of what I feel? There are hand movements for harmony, accord, consonance. Could it be told in music by the longing in a scale? The urge of the seventh to rise to its octave, the fourth to its dominant? I think of an urgent minor key, of dissonance resolving into sweetness, but it doesn’t really get close to the feeling. Those things are in it, but it is more complicated, less ordered, harder to understand.
Yet well worth the effort, without question.
The Chimes is available February 12th from Hodder & Stoughton.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.