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, totalitarian 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!