The Chimes, Anna Smaill’s first novel, presents the reader with a difficult world to adjust to. The story begins when Simon travels to London to carry out his mother’s dying wish. She has asked him to find a woman and she will know what to do. Simon does find her, but she doesn’t want anything to do with him. Simon eventually falls in with a gang, led by the charismatic Lucien.
I’ve found this a difficult book to write about – I’ve started this post a couple of times – and I think I now know why. There are two distinct difficulties that Smaill is writing against. Smaill’s characters exist in a world where they wake up forgetting everything; each person has object-memories which are objects which are physical objects housing their only memories. So when Simon is refused help from the woman, the next day he forgets why he is there. As well, here, people communicate through song. Simon’s mother gives Simon the woman he needs to see’s song, which he must follow. The characters exist in a world of musical language – ‘presto’ and ‘lento’ are used instead of ‘soon’ and ‘slow’. This is a nice idea, using a song instead of a map, but coupled with the collective memory loss, I think it kept me away from the story somehow.
But the story is there and beautiful imagery in the novel keeps returning to me even now, a few weeks after I have finished it. When Simon arrives in London he notes that ‘the whole city is talking in music’, which is a beautiful way of putting it. Simon’s trip into the city and then into the underworld are well-done, and the object-memories are a really interesting idea. Chimes are sounded every morning throughout the country and it is this which is taking away people’s memories. I liked the idea that people can be so affected by what they hear.
The London gang are looking for Palladium, or The Lady, which was in a bomb which destroyed much of this dystopian London. The characters find meaning in their lives, even with extensive collective memory loss. When Lucien and Simon go on a quest to Oxford, the gang are forgotten about because they will forget about Lucien and Simon after a few days. This sadly, and poignantly, reminded me of dementia-sufferers.
Memory loss is a difficult thing to write about because our memories form such a big part of who we are: our consciousness, our personalities. Memory is a subject I’m very interested in, but I have often given up on books with interesting premises before because it is so difficult to write about. But this book is a great achievement, especially for a debut novel.
The Chimes is a beautifully written novel, with an interesting premise. I think it will appeal to readers with more poetic mind-sets.