I’ve read a couple of fascinating dystopian novels published recently: “Station Eleven” and “Not Forgetting the Whale.” Both use a dark forecast of the future to say something meaningful about the present in unique ways and not necessarily in a political fashion, as most dystopian fiction tends to do. This is true with “The Chimes” as well, but it is an extraordinarily different kind of novel. It presents a recognizable, but distorted version of London at some point after a catastrophic event. Familiar streets and landmarks still exist but many names have been recast with phonetically-spelled playful names such as Batter Sea, Dog Isle, Mill Wall or South Walk Bridge. It’s a time when the written word has been outlawed with communication occurring primarily through music. New memories cannot be created and the minds of ordinary citizens are perpetually wiped clean by a daily musical ritual. All experience has been distilled to the resounding tradition of OneStory. The result is a nightmarish world where creativity and personality has been squashed into a monotonous constant.
Once you become familiar with the world-view of “The Chimes” the plot is fairly straightforward. A young man named Simon Wythern arrives in London without any concrete knowledge of where he’s come from or what he should do apart from a vague mission set by his mother to locate a woman who runs a market stall. He survives in the city by joining a gang who scavenge through the tunnels of London to find materials to trade. Leading the roving pact is a semi-blind young man named Lucien who takes Simon into his confidence. Together they set out to uncover the truth about the authoritative system which rules over them and discover how to utilize Simon’s natural gift for recovering memories. The language in the novel is as jarringly new as Eimear McBride's “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing” and set in a London as fantastical as Susanna Clarke's masterful “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.” So it takes some time to become accustomed to the rhythm of reading “The Chimes’” narrative. However, the rewards are well worth the effort as it makes the experience more thrillingly immersive. It’s like your way of thinking has been temporarily reprogrammed to see this alternative reality that Smaill has created. The result is that you might view the real world from a new perspective. I found it affected both my dreams and the way I thought about my own memories.
The novel prompts many questions about our relationship with memory and the past. The only sure way the characters can remember an incident is when they transfer their memories into physical objects. This isn’t so different from the way in which we hoard photographs, letters or objects as touchstones which mentally transport us back to people and places of the past. But there is also body memory. This is formed more from habit or connection between body and place. So which memories are important enough to keep? This issue is raised in the narrative: “What is it that tells you to make a memory? I can't say. Something that sits raised and raw against the skin of the day. Something that presses you.” Certain experiences trigger something inside us which we intuitively know is fundamental to letting us grow and adapt better to the world we live in. Memories of these experiences have practical use. But other memories are based in emotion and subject to creative distortion. “The Chimes” also prompts the question of whether the memories we hoard and cling to like the characters in this novel really amount to anything more than tattered relics?
There is also the issue of collective memories – the stories which are told and retold which help us to define ourselves as a culture. At one point two characters have this conversation:
“'What do you think made certain memories important?'
'Those that were bigger than single stories. That told people something about themselves in this time, about where they were and why.'”
This is when the personal transforms into the emblematic because one person’s story says something crucial about where our civilization came from and where it’s going. Details might change with each telling, but the kernel of an idea remains. The novel also raises more philosophical questions about human nature such as: are memories the things which define identity or are there inherent characteristics within each of us that make us individual? There is nothing overtly epistemological about this novel’s story, but these issues hover lightly in the background due to the way the story is set up.
Finding deeper meaning in novels doesn’t amount to much if you aren’t engaged with the characters in the story and “The Chimes” has a fascinating variety of personalities. Pact member Clare is a compellingly tough self-harming individual. An eccentric old woman named Mary offers surprising insights. The most crucial relationship in the book is between Simon and Lucien. The meaning of their connection changes over the course of their journey and develops into something touchingly romantic. This is handled with great care. I commend the way that the issue of their love affair isn’t to do with the fact that they are two young men, but that they are people from radically different socio-economic backgrounds. Through feeling invested in their relationship, I was also drawn more into the trajectory of the story and made me desperate to know how it all ends. The climax of the novel takes the reader somewhere unexpected with a satisfying twist.
I don’t think there are any fully formed conclusions the reader is meant to take away from travelling through this totalitarian version of the future. But I think “The Chimes” does present a caution about imposing strict homogeneous rules about the arts. The beauty of art is found in the strength of individual voices; dictating that every voice must strictly adhere to certain structures for that expression to have meaning is inimical to art. It’s admirable that this author’s first novel creates an alternate world which is so fully formed and substantial. This is an example of a writer who is drawing upon her strengths to create a new novel form with its own structure and rules. Smaill utilizes her background in music and violin performance as well as her finely-honed poetic voice to create a cohesive language with which to tell her story. I have no musical training or technical knowledge of the subject, yet by the end of the book I not only understood the musical terms through which the characters communicate but felt like I could almost hear the sounds of their world. To have such an impact on the way a reader thinks makes “The Chimes” an impressive accomplishment.