A story that can be written only by one who is versed in music proves itself to be a challenging and also a compelling read. The Chimes is not Anna Smaill’s first literary attempt: she has previously published a book of poetry, The Violinist in Spring. The book was listed as one of Best Books of 2006 by the New Zealand Listener. Now, ten years later, Anna has published her debut novel.
The story is set in an alternate reality, an alternative version of England. We are greeted by a dystopian atmosphere and a slow, melancholy flow of the narrator. Chimes are a melody created after a great tragedy, and are performed by the Carillon - a musical instrument that is played on a daily basis. The melody of the Chimes takes away peoples’ memories, and the only thing they are left with are “bodymemories” or “objectmemories.”
Simon Wythern finds his way to the city of London after his mother’s death. With nothing but a bag of “objectmemories,” which are various items implanted with memories people don’t want to forget, Simon searches the city for a girl named Netty. Every single person has his or her own tune, and by that unique tune Simon finds her. But keeping memories is dangerous, and Netty sends Simon away, saying she has no idea who he is. He falls into the hands of mudlarks, who rummage the tunnels beneath London for palladium, the material from which the Carillon is made. Soon, Simon is caught up in their world and lives each day in the same manner, without knowing it. All he is left with are his “objectmemories” and the cruel joke of “bodymemory,” the muscle memory to recall daily routines and work.
Much like Simon’s memory, the first part of the book is foggy and disoriented. While beautiful, the musical language makes for a heavy read at first, and the reader has trouble focusing on the story. Musical imagery and lyrical language almost recall Toni Morrison’s Jazz, which is what separates this novel from the rest. While most books are best enjoyed in silence, this one may be the exception; to enhance the experience, pair reading with music. Perhaps some Marianelli, Tiersen, or any kind of music to your own preference. This is what I find most intriguing about this story; how well it plays in your mind with the company of music, as if Anna hid the notes between the words like a clever magician.
Yes, the first part of the book is definitely not an easy read, but we are heavily rewarded in the second half of the novel. Simon is helped to remember by his friend, Lucien. Their relationship creates light, subtle undertones in the book’s heavy atmosphere. Their love for each other is not a passionate one, but the gentleness of it makes it so much more beautiful. Through the description Lucien almost seems like an angel, one who fell from the top to the bottom of the city, but this perception is probably caused by the fact that we see Lucien through Simon’s eyes.
The importance and value of memory is hidden all throughout the story, even in the songs. There is a song that speaks of ravens, repeated all over the novel. At first you are reminded of Edgar Allan Poe, especially when the word “nevermore” is used, but there is more that hides behind the symbolism of the raven. In this version of our world, birds don’t exist. They are creatures only mentioned by those who keep memories. And since writing and reading is also forbidden, this proves extremely difficult. Those who keep memories are called the “Ravensguild,” but the imagery of the raven is so much more than a mere reminder, for this bird is also a keeper of deep mysteries and a messenger. In one of the songs we find the names from Norse mythology, but two are more important than others; Huginn and Muninn.
In Norse mythology, the god Odin is accompanied by two ravens, one named Huginn and the other Muninn. Huginn represents the power of thought and Muninn the power of memory. The fear of the loss of memory is present in the poem Grimnismal from Poetic Edda. In it Odin, who was also referred to as the “raven god,” expresses his fear that the ravens may not return from their daily flights, yet he is more fearful of the loss of Muninn than he is of Huginn. We can find a similar message in the poem passed down to Simon by his mother, where she sings “never ravens in the tree, till Muninn can fly home to me,” which embraces the idea of the significance and the need for memory.
To some, this is a story about the importance of remembering, to others about the importance of choice. Sometimes forgetting comes as a bliss, a salvation from pain, sometimes it comes as cruelty, stealing away a happiness worthy to remember. As in many dystopian stories, the band of few decide for the greater good of the many, thus taking away their right to choose.
Perhaps another worthy comparison might be Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Much like The Chimes, Pullman’s story is also fixed in an alternate version of England. The darkness and hopelessness of the “memorylost” from Smaill’s novel (memorylost are those who lost all their objectmemories) is easily compared to the separation of a person and his daemon in Pullman’s trilogy. Both carry a strong theme of the horror of losing an important piece of yourself, of being someone less than who you really are.
We all try to keep pieces of ourselves that we are afraid to lose. Like people of Anna’s world keep their objectmemories, we keep our memories locked away in words or photographs. And at times we take them into our hands and listen for the echo of our past.
This beautifully clever book is easy to get lost in, and while it proves itself challenging to consume, it’s definitely worth it. The Chimes truly is a novel to remember.