Summary: After the end of a brutal civil war, London is divided, with slums standing next to a walled city of elites. Monk-like masters are selected for special schooling and shut away for decades, learning to write beautiful compositions for the chimes, played citywide morning and night, to mute memory and keep the citizens trapped in ignorance.
A young orphan named Simon arrives in London with nothing but the vague sense of a half-forgotten promise, to locate someone. What he finds is a new family–a gang of scavengers that patrols the underbelly of the city looking for valuable metal to sell. Drawn in by an enigmatic and charismatic leader, a blind young man named Lucien with a gift for song, Simon forgets entirely what originally brought him to the place he has now made his home.
In this alternate London, the past is a mystery, each new day feels the same as the last, and before is considered “blasphony.” But Simon has a unique gift–the gift of retaining memories–that will lead him to discover a great injustice and take him far beyond the meager life as a member of Lucien’s gang. Before long he will be engaged in an epic struggle for justice, love, and freedom.
The Chimes is an impressive work of speculative fiction, an imaginative adventure elegantly told. The Chimes reveals the human capacity to create both beauty and terror, in art and in life.
Thoughts: Imagine a world without memory. Imagine waking up in the morning and knowing the people around you, their names, what they do, how they react, but not being able to remember meeting them. Things are how they’ve always been. Muscle memory gets you by, habits born of repetition rather than decision. Imagine a time where the idea of before and after are anathema; there is only today, only now.
This is the world of The Chimes. A world in which memory is destroyed on a daily basis, in which music is communication, and the world in which Simon lives. We see him in the beginning, fleeing to London, and shortly after arriving he cannot remember being anywhere else. He has a bag of objectmemories that prompt him, that tell him that there really was a before, but so much of his life relies on patterns of habit. And everywhere there is music. Tunes to teach maps, to put down patterns into someone’s mind. The music of the Order, those privileged people who compose the Chimes and who are, for all intents and purposes, the ruling elite. This is Simon’s world.
Simon is special. When he touches those objectmemories, he sees what was, as clearly as if he was living it again. Most people can’t do that. Most people keep objectmemories as reminders of the fact that there was once a thing to remember, a piece of comfort from a time that is both gone and never was to begin with. He keeps a lot of this to himself, since memory — anything to do with before — is forbidden, but Simon’s talents do not go unnoticed by Lucien, blind boss of the mudlarking gang that Simon found himself in after his arrival in London. And Lucien himself has a secret history, one that connects to the Order, to the music they make and the effect it has on people. And he’s not about to miss an opportunity when he sees one.
I found myself captivated by The Chimes, in no small part for all the subtle details that Smaill weaves into the narrative. Musical terms are peppered through the text casually: presto, lento, all good terms for describing ways to play and what music sounds like, because music is such an integral part of the world that language has changed around it. How it’s written in 1st person and so the descriptions sometimes become like a stream of consciousness, poetic and chaotic but still clear. The plays on words like blasphony and turning palladium into the Pale Lady. There are times when Simon sees writing that comes across to readers as perfectly legible, but he can’t understand it; it’s “code” and useless, meaningless, and ultimately forbidden by the Order because it came from before and was a way of storing memory.
Things like this were what revealed Smaill’s talent for storytelling, piece by tantalizing piece. Reading The Chimes doesn’t just involve sinking into a new story. It involves having to restructure the way you think about thought and communication. To live without memory is to live without context; without context, so much lacks meaning that we now would give to it. The line about writing being a way of storing memory really stuck with me, because it’s true. At any moment I can write down what I did, a thought I had, and revisit it at any time. In the same way that oral storytelling in preliterate cultures connects them to the past and shapes the way they interact with the world, so too does reading and writing for us. It’s integral, to the point that most of us think little of it because we do it by reflex. The idea that the past can be stolen, effectively erased by a sonic weapon that acts daily to take away the chance of someone forming contextual ideas and thoughts about the world around them, is frankly terrifying.
Simon’s personal growth as the story advances is subtle but obvious in hindsight. Thought the narrative is beautifully written, there’s something about the early parts of the story that feel almost dull and hazy, a little bit unformed. This contrasts well with later parts of the book, as Simon slowly explores his talent with holding memory and gains more context of himself and awareness of the world around him. The imagery is the same, but it feels so much more clear later on, and I loved that touch. His growing affection for Lucien… Well, let’s just say that I caught that spark pretty early on, and spent more than half the book wondering if anything would come of it or whether I was just grasping at straws. You see Simon grow up, from an unaware boy to a young man with a sense of righteousness. This doesn’t happen over years, but over a much shorter span that, as I said, has more to do with his growing memory than the passage of time.
Looking at the progression of the story, in which Simon recognizes his talent with memory and becomes a part of Lucien’s drive to overthrow the forgetful tyranny of the Order, discovering a secret group dedicated also to doing that same thing, it would be easy to read reviews and think that this book is trite, derivative of so many “young man takes on the world” stories. But to see it that way does it a great disservice. The Chimes is evocative, poetic, and above all set in a brilliant future that is at once cautionary and compelling. Even if the story had been lackluster (and it wasn’t), the level of detail in the setting would have drawn me in and on.
Beautifully ironic for the subject matter, The Chimes is one of the most memorable books I’ve read this year. It’s poignant, breathtaking, full of passion and discovery and a refreshing variation on a common theme. It is, in short, one of those all-important novels that you need to experience, to let change you. I simply can’t recommend this one enough.
(Received for review from the publisher.)