The Chimes by Anna Smaill – 2015

the chimesThe Chimes is a debut novel set in a dystopian London where society has fallen back into medieval struggle.  The ‘Order’ has wiped, and continues to wipe, memory from the general population under the guise of paternalistic caring – violence and hatred arise from memory – and they have created a population of totally conforming or totally unaware ‘memorylost’ citizens.  There is nothing new in these ideas – nor in the presence of a non-conforming rebellious few – but what is really novel and a joy to read is the musical basis of Anna Smaill’s storytelling:  The regular ‘memoryloss’ sessions are caused by The Chimes of a giant musical instrument, and the narrative is peppered with musical terms – people move ‘lento’ or  ‘presto’, quietness is ‘tacet’, and talking of the times before the ‘allbreaking’ is ‘blasphony’.  I wasn’t surprised to find that the author is a violinist.  We find out about this confusing world and go on the journey of rebellion with a young orphan called Simon – who has to struggle to remember enough to string his thoughts together as he goes along, his remembering is initially aided by his sack of ‘objectmemories’.  Simon falls in with a band of ‘pactrunners’ who survive by retrieving pieces of ‘mettle’ sunk in the Thames mud, which the Order require to maintain the controlling instrument.   And he partners up with the band’s leader, Lucien, to take their hope of overturning the regime to the very heart of the Order – in Oxford.  The treasuring of past grievances is a destructive force, but the message of The Chimes is that to forcibly remove the underlying memories of grievance means also removing the complexity, beauty and sadness of the mess of human relationships and experiences.  Smaill’s writing is quite haunting at times: “Where’s the basso profundo for a dead baby, darling? What’s the discant for the mess of loss?”  I was quite anxious a few times reading this book, wondering if the author manages to maintain the world she has created through to a satisfying conclusion – she does – a great debut novel.

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