In a world where the past is a mystery, each new day feels the same as the last, and before is blasphony, all appears lost. But Simon Wythern, a young man who arrives in London seeking the truth about what really happened to his parents, discovers he has a gift that could change all of this forever.
The Chimes is the debut novel of Anna Smaills in which a dystopian England has been stripped of words and memory and where music has been elevated to the highest plane. The book essentially splits into two parts. In the first we are absorbed into the world to understand how it works and its impact on the lives of the people we meet, whilst in the second having become accustomed to our environment we are faced with the struggle to overcome and break free of the control of a totalitarian system.
The dominant role that music plays in the world that Smaill has created gives her story an original and absorbing context. Communication even takes place through the means of musical direction and the language the author uses to describe the world and events in it is filled with musical reference. The implication of the world that music is also used to rob people of their memory is also a fascinating concept and raises deep questions about what makes us who we are and the part that our memories play in our identification of self.
Reading The Chimes at a time when I have been watching a relative decline through a combination of old age and dementia made this element of the novel resonate even further. Is there a point at which the loss of our memories changes both who we are and our very nature? To what extent are our memories actually a burden? Why do we sometimes accept the loss of control and release from who we are?
When Simon Wythern arrives in London he is quickly adopted by the Five Rover pact and their charismatic leader Lucien. Each morning they tell the “Onestory” which reminds them of the “Allbreaking” when dischord ruled only to be brought into harmony by the ruling Order and their Carillon instrument. In the evening the Carillon plays out Chimes, music composed by the Order’s finest musicians to wipe away memory and keep disorder, or free thought, at bay.
This first phase is beautifully written and the reader is soon drawn into the initially disorientating world as Simon lives day to day as a pact runner and Lucien gradually helps him realise his talents and opens up his mind to both his own past and the Order’s. With this slow and all absorbing start the second half, as Simon and Lucien undertake their quest to overthrow the Order, seems to happen all too quickly and as a result the two parts jar a little with each other. It feels a bit like the upfront investment in understanding this strange world is paid back a little short at the end.
Despite that this remains an engaging debut. Despite a proliferation of dystopian fiction, the world is original and well-drawn and there are interesting, appealing characters in the gently blooming love affair between Simon and Lucien and also the emotional tension of the latter’s sister, whose own world crashes in on her in heart rending fashion. These and the role of memory in both our individual and collective identification and harmony give the reader plenty to dwell upon.