THE CHIMES (2015/16)
Sceptre, 289 pages
* * * * *
The Chimes is far more than an impressive debut; it’s a work of genius. Beware, this is serious literature. It’s a slim volume, but it’s neither an easy nor a breezy read. Anna Smaill, a New Zealand poet and classical violinist, dares to challenge readers and trusts they are smart enough to fill the voids. She also trusts them to do their homework, so don't expect to be spoon-fed. Unless you are well grounded in music theory, keep your smart phone handy with a dictionary bookmarked. Smaill establishes an alternative universe—a time-indeterminate dystopia—that reveals its details in clues and individual notes, not in fell swoops or hummable pop melodies.
If you’re wondering what’s up with the music references, ponder this question: Who says communication must be based upon printed or spoken words? The Chimes takes place in England, after an event known as Allbreaking, which might have extinguished society had not a mysterious cadre known as The Order vanquished mayhem and reinstituted its namesake social organization. The Order is robed and quasi-religious in its discipline, but with a twist: they are master musicians. As such, music has replaced written language, and solfege–look it up as you’ll need to know what it means—has become the primary form of communication. It has, in fact, become the only true way of obtaining information as each day is punctuated by The Chimes, a time in which music wafts across the land. The next day citizens awake with no memory of the past; they carry small bags filled with “memoryobjects,” personal tokens that give them just enough hints about their identities to function. What has happened? What is this new world like? How can a society based upon music sustain itself? Is something sinister about the official narrative ("onestory")?
You’ll need to be patient. There are no Sherlock Holmes-like ah-ha summations. The story arc of this dramatic thriller is linked to two young men, charismatic Lucien and perplexed Simon, and its notes begin to take shape when Simon arrives in London after his parents’ deaths—presumably to apprentice himself to an instrument maker. Instead, he finds himself along the Thames with Lucien and three other “pactrunners” sifting through the river muck and running full bore through pitch-black drainage tunnels using solfege to locate themselves and find the way back to their shelter. What’s the purpose of this and who is “The Lady” constantly referenced? What does it matter if the next morning one doesn’t recall? But what if there are those with the ability to retain memories? Is that a good or a bad thing? And who says music has to be benign?
The Chimes has a bit of everything, except birds. (You’ll find out why there are no birds.) There are secret cadres, chases, mysteries, secrets, plots and subplots. I was, at times, reminded of The Name of the Rose in the way in which symbols are manipulated, how secret languages—musical in this case—convey meaning, and how each character’s motives are ambiguous and we can’t immediately tell if that’s because they are clueless or have ulterior agendas. There’s even a medieval ambience, if you can conjure one with dashes of Mad Max and The Navigator mixed in.
Smaill’s prose is nuanced, complex, and eloquent. I adored this book and was grateful for a work that stretched me. Many readers will feel lost for the first hundred pages or so, but think of The Chimes as you might a complicated jigsaw puzzle in which it takes time for images to emerge once the preliminary straight edges are locked in place. Once you finish the novel, the picture before you will be unlike any others you will assemble this reading year. One of the book’s subplots involves searching for silver and palladium, but my take is that The Chimes is pure gold. Rob Weir