The Chimes, by Anna Smaill, Sceptre (2015).

Anna Smaill is a New Zealander, a classical violinist and a poet. This, her first novel, was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize, and it certainly deserved that accolade. It will be like nothing you have ever read. Reading this book is like inhabiting the head of someone who thinks in musical idiom rather than in prose, which has a startling and disorientating effect – especially for the musically illiterate, like me. And along the way, Smaill raises questions about memory, narrative, religion, oppression, identity, language, the evil of perfection, and the pain of free will, in a consistently vivid and gripping tale.

The Chimes is – technically – science fiction, as it is set in a future where the world as we know it – the hi-tech but morally corrupt world of computers, electronics, metro systems, planes, and written information – has been destroyed in an apocalyptic episode called the Allbreaking. What has replaced it is a harmonious, but backward, totalitaritumblr_ns9480p6GV1uyx4j8o2_1280an state run by the Order, and ruled by music: music as social organizing principle; music as mytho-political orchestration; music as language; music as mind control; music as faith. It is a world where everyone plays an instrument, almost everyone converses in ‘solfege’ – the hand-signed version of the tonic Sol-Fa scale – and every trade, place, smell, object, person, direction or memory has its own idiosyncratic theme-tune or melody. It is also where, more ominously, all books have been burned and the narrative principle of individual lives, the connection with remembered past, is erased daily by Onestory and the Chimes. These are two acts of compulsory daily communal worship or ritual accompanied by a massive barrage of glorious but brain-wiping sound. Smaill sustains this world not only descriptively but with its own vernacular – an English corrupted in pronunciation by the lack of written records – and with a perfectly judged use of musical terminology and imagery through which the characters describe their lives, feelings and actions.

In this strange but familiar world we meet Simon, a boy or young man apparently from nowhere, somewhere on the road to London. With him he carries only a bag containing his ‘object memories’ – talismans he uses to recall elements of his past and his now dead parents, and the ‘body memory’ of the skill of planting bulbs. We know nothing more of him or where he is going – and nor, it seems, does he, except for a song whose words he can’t quite remember as a clue, a thread he is convinced he has to follow.

Simon falls in with a gang of young river prospectors who search ‘the Under’, formerly the London Underground and sewer systems, for ‘the Pale Lady’ – a corruption of palladium, a pure silvery metal that has the unique property that it can insulate against sound. They sell scraps of this ‘mettle’ to make a living, as it is used to build the instrument that makes the Chimes. The gang members find their way in the darkness by maps drawn with song, memorizing routes with music, and find ‘the Lady’ because of its silvery silence behind the interwoven melodies of their soundscape world.

It turns out, however, that Simon has a gift that not many in his world possess – the ability to piece together his own fragmented memories into a narrative, and the ability to ‘read’ others’ memories from the objects in which they have invested them. The novel is written in the present tense, so we are naïve readers, sharing Simon’s perpetual ‘groundhog day’ point of view, then piecing together the threads along with him and Lucien, the gang leader, as they begin to reconstruct each others’ pasts and the history of their world through recovered scraps of memory. In doing so, they discover the dystopian truth of their apparently utopian world, and the mission Simon has been sent on by his parents. This, it becomes clear, is to seek out others like him, a kind of resistance movement of memory keepers and, eventually, to overturn the beautiful serene musical order that has tried to erase the past and imposes totalitarian oppression on them all.

The concepts raised in this ambitious novel are not all quite fully realized or resolved, which perhaps is why – aside from the genre – the book did not make the Booker shortlist. What enchanted me about it, though, was the magical world of musical consciousness – a parallel to the almost magical fashion in which those with faith of certain kinds perceive the universe and operate within it. Reading it was like acquiring a seventh sense, in which everything is newly comprehensible in a supra-real way, or like experiencing all-five-sense synaesthesia. This beyond-normal means of perception and communication, the revelatory exploration of the capacities of memory and what it means in human society, and the extraordinary talents and feats of musicianship, are gateways to a higher, more refined world, and it is no surprise that after the demise of the Chimes the general population is not relieved but pained and bewildered by the loss of this magical repetitive certainty of existence. It is, after all, no less than the loss of access to God.

Although the beauty of such a world in this novel proves fatal, it is nevertheless an extraordinary imaginative creation, and sings on in the memory long after you close the book. I will be looking forward to Anna Smaill’s next novel.

Genre: Literary fiction, science fiction

Best accompanied by: bubble and squeak, neeps and tatties, rabbit, squirrel and every kind of music from folk song to organ to plainsong.

You will like if: you can read music or play an instrument or know solfege; you like earth-based future world sci-fi; Oxford; London; the Underground; memory games.

Avoid if: You don’t like science fiction, music, or critiques of religion!

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Reviews and poems

There must be something about October… It’s been a whole year since I wrote here. However, inspired by my writer friend, the lovely Isha Crowe who blogs at http://ishacrowe.wordpress.com/author/icrowe/ I thought I should start again.

Instead of blogging, or novel writing, for the last year I have been writing reviews, mostly for a great little online magazine or ezine for writers, called Words With Jam. Words With Jam produces a themed issue six times a year covering publishing, writing technique, fiction and poetry, and running great competitions as well as reviews. It also has a regular review-based blog at http://www.bookmuse.co.uk. I have reviewed Negotiating With The Dead, a book by Margaret Atwood on the strange beast known as a writer, and what it means to be one; The Bastard Pleasure, a ‘Belfast Noir’ novel by  philosophy prof. Sean McGrady, a short but dense and lyrical read full of violence and questions of identity; Sightlines, a book of essays by poet Kathleen Jamie, about her various journeys in Scotland and further north looking at our relationships with the natural world, and A God In Every Stone, by Kamila Shamsie, a novel set in World War I examining the role Indian soldiers played and how their experiences fed into the independence movement. Right now I’m contemplating what my next review should be as I need to produce another by the end of October. It will have to be short – the book, not necessarily the review – as I plan to try once again to tackle National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short) again this November – to finish that *&^!!* novel!

This year has been a year for setting goals. Another writerly-readerly related one has been the 50 book pledge (based at a canadian website) in which I have committed to read 50 books this year. That’s almost one a week. Simple! I hear you cry… except not at the pace I read, and not when you have the attention span of a gnat, as is currently the case here. As things stand I’m behind… not way way behind, but behind enough to make it hard to reach my goal unless I read 15 “Mr Men” books in the next 3 months to achieve it. Needless to say, I have already been reading quite a lot of short books – mostly poetry – to hit my target, regardless of what I might otherwise have wanted to read. However, this has had the strange effect of a) making me realise how little poetry I read normally, a situation that will henceforth be rectified; and – and this is even more unexpected – b) inspiring me to start writing more poetry of my own. If only I’d known that before – to write, you need to read. Sounds obvious now.

Well. So I reach October having added around 10 poems I’m quite pleased with to my lifetime tally. More poems in a year than ever before. Possibly more poems in a year (in fact in about 2 months) than I have written before altogether. I’m not claiming they’re good, mind, just that I am more satisfied with them – the little knotty puzzle of putting words together in a pattern that flows and negotiates a single idea with many metaphors – than anything I’ve done previously. I feel as if I’m beginning to crack that thing called poetry that once seemed so mysterious and elusive. I only wish I could say the same about short stories. I would post a couple of poems here, but that would be publishing and would invalidate their appearance anywhere else (I keep hoping).

The third writing-related activity I’ve been involved in this year – one which I gifted to myself as self-development after two years of promising myself – was an Arvon course in August at the beautiful and very isolated Arvon centre in Devon. Totleigh Barton is an ancient farmhouse (16th Century) and barn with martins nesting in the eves and broad oak-strewn meadows all around. This is the second time I’ve been to a course there, and the place continues to inspire, as do the other course students who attend – this time a wonderful international group who worked brilliantly together – and the teachers. We were lucky to have Clare Allan, author of Poppy Shakespeare, and Tash Aw, author of Five Star Billionaire, to teach us, both of whom were complete stars and hugely inspiring and encouraging. We spent a lot of time laughing as well as writing. I would recommend an Arvon course to anyone.
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