Book Review — The Chimes (2015) by Anna Smaill

This review is part of the No Man’s Land Reading Project, an attempt to right a gendered imbalance in my reading and a general imbalance in the availability of reviews (by men, especially) of works by female authors.

A lesson imparted to me during my time in street press is that there’s no point publishing a negative review of an artist’s first album. Every artist deserves a second chance, and in your capacity as a reviewer you’re capable both of granting them one yourself, and of granting them one in the minds of readers who trust your work. Let the people who like it like it, let the artists make what little money they can, let them get their foot in the door at least. Tearing their first work to shreds is a dick move.

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That mentality is going to colour this review of Anna Smaill’s debut novel, because I promised to review every book I read this year, and The Chimes was one of them, and I didn’t like it. I’m not sure how to go about imbuing this review with moderation without seeming obtuse or pulling my punches so I’ll be as direct as possible, but there is a reason Smaill was published and it may be a reason you agree with. In fact, Geraldine Brooks just chose it as her summer book, Catherine Taylor at The Guardian loved it, and it was longlisted for the Man Booker prize, so.

The Chimes is a dystopian novel set in a post-apocalyptic England where no one can remember anything except the most basic rudiments of identity and purpose, and many have forgotten even that. Each day’s passing is marked in the morning by the singing of a quasi-creation myth, and in the evening by the sounding of world-filling chimes that force all inhabitants into a gripping, irresistible trance.

Your narrator, a young man named Simon, who seems to materialise, lost, on the side of a muddy road, is trying to accomplish something, and to accomplish it he feels compelled to go to London. Unfortunately, once there, he loses track of exactly why he came and falls in with a group of street rats who explore underground tunnels (using songs as maps) to retrieve bits of a rare metal that creates silence.

This information, mind you, isn’t clear. That summary (and the much more exhaustive one Taylor offers in her Guardian review, which makes the book sound positively lucid) is based on information I squeezed from the obscure first-person narrative over the course of the first 150 pages. Because your narrator is first-person, and in the present tense, and is subject to a world where memory no longer exists, he’s a bloody useless anchor. You could kindly call his voice “existential”.

But then something seems to change, and in the course of twenty pages Smaill goes from giving you nothing (if I hadn’t been reading The Chimes for a friend’s book club I would have given up) to raw dialogue and flashback-based exposition that fills in every possible blank. It’s about as artless a shift of gears as I’ve read this year, and yet still not enough to make the book compelling. When a romance subplot lunges with actual clarity out of a world where people barely know their own name, it’s just a big, really?

Because along the way, much is amiss. While I will bypass commenting on Smaill’s prose, the line between window-dressing a dystopia and world building one is fine but clear, and the few things Smaill has done to create a world dominated by sound are either superficial or so difficult to fathom that they become quite meaningless.

Swapping traditional tempo markings with adjectives (he does something ‘subito’ instead of doing something ‘suddenly’) is clever but ultimately insignificant. The deeper facets of the world, like the metal they harvest for its silence, are never properly explained, and seem too pivotal to leave romantically vague. In the end, the deafness of the characters to their own memories and purposes seems to pervade the book, to the point that you stop listening, or are startled and turned off by the ugly clarity of exposition when it emerges.

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The Chimes is only ever briefly vivid enough. In pursuit of authenticating the real-world experience of a subject of its dystopia, its pacing, character, plot and world-building have been overlooked. Overall, the themes and plot of The Chimes make it feel like perfect young adult fiction that has been put through a literary fiction wringer.

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