Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Chimes by Anna Smaill

This literary fantasy debut is a love song to music.  Anna Smaill adds some interesting twists with a story set in an alternate London and supposed utopia consisting of people living in a permanent state of memory loss and kept docile by music. 

It is a twisted take on the familiar sentiments of “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it,“ “history is written by the victors,” and "ignorance is bliss" with people who are incapable of retaining memory, have no written language, and live without a past.  They learn just enough to live day to day.  There is the unquestioned presence of music regularly played each day by a mysterious Order.  This original and fresh dystopian premise is coupled with beautiful and poetic writing. Smaill is both poet and musician, and it shows with how she eloquently writes about music and the way it becomes part of the world building.

A teen named Simon goes to London with the barest memory of his mother’s final request.  He gets sidetracked and joins a gang of scavengers.  Simon has the ability to remember in a way the average person is unable to, but he has little training and motivation to develop his talent.  The gang’s leader, Lucien, is a secretive and charismatic person who sees the world differently.  He recognizes Simon’s gift and sees the potential for more.  Lucien realizes something is wrong with the world as it is and seeks to do something about it, recruiting Simon to his efforts.

The world building described in Smaill's eloquent writing stands out.  The way she writes about music rings true.  Music exists for more than just passive consumption or stirring emotions.  It is literally a part of life with the power to transform and to harm.  The way people communicate and see the world has its own kind of language and slang that immerses readers into the setting and feel of this alternate world.  Many use song as a way to identify other people, things, and as a memory aide.  Smaill uses music terminology throughout.  Listening, descriptions of sounds, taking in the world through sound are plentiful and bleeds into other senses, a kind of synesthesia but with music--speaking piano, moving lento.  To disobey the Order and its teachings is considered "blasphony" (a clever combining of blasphemy and "phono,” the root word for sound).

Smaill’s story is not a typical dystopian novel.  Simon starts as the everyman example of this world, allowing readers to gradually learn about how a society can function without long-term memory.  A people concerned with just remembering who they are from day to day are not going to think deep, think about the past or injustices, or outside of their daily lives, so they do not cause trouble.  It almost seems a typical dysopian adventure where the underdogs try to bring down the Powers that Be and free the people, throwing in a secret resistance, a prophecy of sorts, and a romance.  The writing keeps it reading more like an adult literary novel.  It is not a stark, good-vs-evil conflict to be solved by a huge, grand uprising, and that makes it more uncertain and suspenseful seeing what direction the story goes.

Look for The Chimes on the VBPL Catalog.  Try Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey (see review) for a literary dystopia defined by color-blindness, Eli Horowitz’ The Silent History for a dystopia about people without language, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant for more fantasy with lyrical writing and memory loss.

Review by Tracy V.

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