Book Review

The Chimes by Anna Smaill

The Chimes is one of the most unusual novels that I’ve ever read.  Set in a dystopian world ruled by The Order, inhabitants are controlled through the use of a musical instrument – The Carillon.  People are unable to form new memories, and the written word is forbidden. 

The story centres around Simon, newly arrived in London, carrying his life in a small bag containing his ‘object memories’ – objects imbued with memories that act as prompts, allowing him to relive moments of his past life which would otherwise slip away.  He is on a mission, although he can’t quite remember what it is he has to do…

Joining a gang of ‘mudlarkers’ (essentially scavengers), we join him on his adventure as he seeks answers to questions that he doesn’t initially realise that he has.

When people ask for advice on writing, one thing that often comes up is to write about what you know.  Smaill has certainly adhered to this in The Chimes – a classically trained violinist, the novel has music at its core and is filled with musical terminology, including:

  • Tacet – silent
  • Lento – slow or slowly
  • Subito – immediate or sudden

The characters in the novel think in these terms – if something happens suddenly, it is always ‘subito’.  Whilst this was interesting and certainly ties in with the theme of the novel, I thought that it made the novel a little repetitive.  Where an author would normally use various synonyms – sudden, abrupt, for example – the same word is used throughout The Chimes.  With hindsight, however, I think that this may be deliberate.  I think that Smaill is telling us that if the written word is forbidden, or if our language is restricted in any way, then this has a negative impact on us and our society.  It restricts our freedom of thought and expression, and removes part of what makes us individuals, things which would pose a threat to those seeking to dominate.  I think that Smaill is trying to warn us against the restriction of language, much like Orwell did with ‘newspeak’ in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The use of amnesia as a tool of submission is a successful one.  Without memory, we can’t learn and adapt based on our past experiences, and it means that The Order can tell the population whatever they want – people will not be able to argue against it.  Thus propaganda, an element of much dystopian fiction, is so much easier.  Additionally, we see how people’s ‘object memories’ are used as comforters, as this is the only way in which precious moments can be revisited.  As well as using memory to learn, I think that we also use memories of past events to draw strength.  We can think back on happier times, and know that we will be happy again at some point even if we are unhappy at that moment in time.  The people in the world of The Chimes have so few memories from which they can draw strength.

I also particularly liked the references to myth and legend in The Chimes.  Supposedly, Charles II, who reigned in the 17th century, said that if the ravens ever leave The Tower of London then the kingdom will fall, and the ravens at The Tower are still protected today.  In The Chimes, the ravens have left, and the world is much worse off for it, and although this myth is not referenced directly in the novel, I like to think that it provided some inspiration, however small.  Another, possibly circumstantial, connection to mythology is Huginn and Muninn who were, according to Norse mythology, Odin’s ravens, representing thought and memory respectively.  Interestingly, Odin was also scared that one day his ravens, who travelled around Midgard to bring him news, would not return to him.  It seems that the fear that we lose our ideas and memories is not a new one.  Additionally, I suspect that the use of the word ‘nevermore’ in Smaill’s poem about the ravens is a nod to Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem The Raven, although it may simply have been a convenient rhyme.

I really enjoyed this this strikingly original novel.  It’s not perfect – I felt that the action scenes at the end were a little weak, and I was left wondering what happened to some of the secondary characters who are seemingly dropped without a thought, but whilst this isn’t the easiest of reads, it is an original piece of work, and is worth persevering with.

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