The Chimes is a beautifully written book – it came as no surprise to read in the author bio that Anna Smaill is a poet – with a post apocalyptic setting that is imaginative and ambitious in concept but makes only a modicum of sense in execution.
Smaill conceives of a post-disaster London where the written word is banned and where people mostly communicate through tunes and songs. This London is ruled by the Magisters who every morning and night blast out the Chimes across the city and countryside, a symphonic expression of order and perfection. So powerful are the Chimes that they have the unhappy knack of (a) degrading people’s memories – or at least the lower castes that live outside the Citadel in Oxford – and (b) eventually leading to chime-sickness, a neurological disorder that results in a painful death.
The novel’s main problem – apart from an abrupt, blink and you’ll miss it climax – is that Smaill never makes clear as to how London or the Earth in general – not that we’re told about the rest of the world – reached this point. There’s some handwavium about a discovery before the collapse of the effects certain sounds can have on the human body and it’s clear that at some moment in the past music was weaponised by the Magisters. But how they were formed and what led to their ascendancy is never explained. It’s also not explained why some people, like our main protagonist Simon, have the psychic ability to generate detailed memories from objects they’ve touched. Is it a mutation brought about by the Chimes? Is it magic?
Of course not everyone is going to care about the world building or why Simon can access other people’s memories. They will be wowed by the prose because disappointing climax aside at a sentence level The Chimes is truly a delight with a story that does build like a symphony. Smaill’s deep and abiding passion for all things musical – she’s a violinist – shines through. Also the key relationship in the story – Simon and Lucien – is well realised. So while I found the lack of clarity around the world building frustrating, I can see why the novel was longlisted last year for the Booker and this year was nominated and won the World Fantasy Award.