And now, with Anna Smaill’s debut novel, The Chimes, I have finished my reading of the Booker longlist. And this was a good ending, because I enjoyed this book very much. It’s a strange book and will probably annoy a lot of readers, but I appreciated Smaill’s commitment to her concept and was fully drawn into the world she created, even when that world didn’t entirely make sense.
The Chimes is set in London and Oxford at some indeterminate time in the future. Modern-day technology is no more, and written language exists only as “code”—letters on walls and buildings that no one understands but that time hasn’t washed away. Spoken language, too, is mostly lost (the nature of spoken language in this world is one thing that I couldn’t quite figure out). People instead communicate primarily through music, the notes and chords and rhythms, along with solfège signs, becoming a complete language. And every night, all the people of London gather along the Thames to listen to the Chimes that sound from pipes in the river. At first, the Chimes seem like a ritual to center the day around, but their more sinister nature gradually becomes clear.
Besides not having language as we know it, this world also lacks memory as we know it. People who want to remember something have to consciously impress the memory in an action (bodymemory) or an object (objectmemory). The ability to retain and understand memories varies from person to person, and the retention of memory seems to depend on circumstance. Everyone seems to have a different way of coping, but the lack of memory makes relationships difficult because a close friendship today could be forgotten tomorrow.
The book’s narrator, Simon, has left his previous life to come to London. He quickly joins a “pact,” a group of thieves who wander the tunnels looking for bits of something called “the Lady” that they can trade. The Lady is a substance that is important in the spreading of music and is both highly valuable and forbidden.
As Simon starts to learn more about the Lady and the Carillon that sounds the Chimes each night, he comes to understand that he has a forgotten duty. Along with his friend Lucien, he tries to uncover and fulfill his duty.
Because this world is so complex, much of this book is concerned entirely with world-building. Smaill cannot entirely get across the linguistic differences between this world and ours, but she does use language to convey a sense of difference. Most of the time, this means incorporating musical terms—“I wait and breathe and lento it comes back” or “And then subito I am running.” There are also a lot of fragments in Simon’s language, which I think conveys something of the feeling of lacking memory. I enjoyed the writing, but I imagine some readers will find it obnoxious.
The focus on world-building means that it does take a while for the characters to develop. (Their lack of memory probably doesn’t help.) In fact, I was prepared to write that off as a serious weakness when at about the halfway point, the book focuses more intensely on Simon’s growing love for Lucien and the romance that develops between them. I was pleased at how the fact that the characters were gay and falling in love was treated as a perfectly ordinary and reasonable thing, difficult because their memories are slippery, not because they’re both boys. It is, after all, the future.
This was one of the more original pieces of speculative fiction I’ve read in quite a while. I can’t think of anything to compare it to. It was especially refreshing in a Booker list that was heavy on realism. I recommend it with caveats, because I really do think readers’ reactions to its oddness will vary. I, for one, found it a pleasure and hope that you do too.