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Anna Smaill: The Chimes

The post-apocalyptic dystopian novel seems to be making a comeback and here we have another one from New Zealand poet Anna Smaill. As well as being a poet, Smaill is a musician, trained as a violinist, and music informs this novel throughout. Indeed, you might appreciate it somewhat more if you do understand some of the basics of music but I do not and was still able to enjoy it, so do not let that put you off. What happened to lead to the dystopian world we have in this novel, set mainly in London, is not initially clear. We know it was called the Allbreaking. We know that sound became a weapon. In the city, glass shivered out of context, fractured white and peeled away from windows. The buildings rumbled and fell. The mettle was bent and twisted out of tune. The water in the river stood in a single wave that never toppled. What happened to the people? The people were blinded and deafened. The people died. The bridge between Bankside and Paul’s shook and stirred, or so they say. The people ran but never fast enough. After Allbreaking, only the pure of heart and hearing were left. They dwelled in the cities. They waited for order; they waited for a new harmony. As a result sounds are transmitted mainly by music rather than words and, indeed, those with the appropriate skill can use music, for example, to find a route or find The Lady, the valuable palladium that the protagonists of this novel seek. The people are controlled by music. A large musical instrument, called The Carillon, blares out several times a day and people not only have to listen to it but it affects them and, more particularly, their memories.

The various periods when the Carillon plays recall both Christian services and Muslim prayers. Onestory, more or less equivalent to the Christian Matins, relays a call and response version of what went wrong at Allbreaking while Chimes, a Vespers equivalent, is like a fist. It unclutches, opens. Starts like a fist, but then it bursts like a flowering. Who can say if it’s very slow or very fast? Chimes is always different, and even after the thousands of times, I couldn’t venture to say what it’s like. It aims is to make people forget their memories and forget blasphony, the time before the Allbreaking. People, of course, do try to remember, even though it is both illegal and dangerous. Everyone has bodymemory, i.e. your body remembering what to do, while others have objectmemory, i.e. objects that remind them of what happened in their past, with the objects sometimes carried around in a memory bag.

The story focuses on Simon Wythern, a young man, who, at the start of the novel arrives in London from Essex. He has left Essex, as both of his parents died. As we learn, he has a gift of seeing other people’s memories and can help them remember, a dangerous and illegal skill. He first goes searching for Netty, a woman whom his mother mentioned. He does find her but she spurns him and claims not to know his mother. He wanders round and manages to join a gang (called a pact, in this book) called Five Rover. They are led by the somewhat enigmatic but likeable Lucien and they are looking for The Lady, primarily in the under, the tunnels under the city, which they sell to The Order, the mysterious ruling class. Food is obtained by foraging and trapping rabbits.

Like everyone else, The Chimes help Simon to forget and, in particular, to forget his parents but, with Lucien’s help, he starts to recover some of his memories. Much of the early part of the book is taken up with an introduction to this new world, not always an easy task, till we learn what these various words mean, as well as following Simon’s induction into the gang and the gang’s activities. However, things then start to go wrong. There is conflict with the poliss and neighbouring gangs. The Order seems to be involved.

From that point on the novel takes a generally predictable course. We have a (fairly) evil ruling class, that is determined to maintain its rule and its way of life at all costs and we have, in this case, two solitary heroes, one a naive young lad and the other something of an insider but now a renegade. It is fairly easy to guess that they are going to find some clever way to subvert if not destroy the ruling class. They are going to go on a treacherous journey, in this case via Reading to Oxford, and somehow get inside. What makes this book different, of course, is the music. The fact that music is used as a means of communication, not just to convey feelings but to convey specific messages and as a navigation tool, is a fascinating approach. This means that this ability to communicate can be used for good, for bad or just for everyday use and, in this book, it is used for all three. It is very cleverly done even if, for someone musically illiterate like me, it is not always clear exactly how it works, and Smaill does tell us a gripping story of a post-apocalyptic England. Though a very different story and approach, it is interesting that another New Zealander, Kirsty Gunn, wrote a novel where a knowledge of music theory would have been most useful to the reader.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by Sceptre