Sceptre, 12 February 2015
Hardback, 304 pages
I was sent a copy of this to review by Amazon Vine.
There is a lot of debate on reviewer websites, book blogs and book podcasts about whether to persist with a book which is difficult to get into. There are so many books, and so little time, after all, that it's tempting to give up and move on.
But every so often a book comes along which rewards perseverance.
This is such a book, and while it may not be to everyone's taste, I want to persuade you to give it a chance, because, once you "get" it, it is beautiful, moving and - yes - exciting and dramatic.
We are introduced to a London not unlike our own, but distinctly pre-modern: there no machines and no electricity.
Following his mother's death, a boy travels from the bulbfields of Essex to find one of her friends in the city. What he is to do then we don't know. The atmosphere is very constrained: facts are few and hard to interpret. Smaill is, I think, leading us into the mindset of her characters, showing what the world they live in like, through that atmosphere. So, memory is important. Somehow it keeps being lost: everyone forgets pretty much everything each day and has to continually relearn who they are and how to live. The only solid memories are those anchored in items which you carry round with you ("objectmemory") and in learned skills ("muscle memory"). There is always the risk - if one sets foot outside the familiar - of going adrift, becoming "memoryless", a hopeless, pitiable state. A story told about people like this is necessarily allusive, missing out facts and connections that have simply been lost by the characters, dwelling on the little knowledge and few incidents that they recall, celebrating and turning on minor - to us - triumphs of recall, before lapsing again into darkness and chaos.
That makes it hard, at first, to enter the world of this book, as did - at least for me - the musical metaphors used in the story. This is a world where writing is banned, memories full of holes: but music is everywhere. Music supplies the place of maps, of print and television (instead of which, the citizens come together every morning and evening to hear the "Chimes" of the title, a musical creation broadcast on some remote instrument of unimaginable power which both binds them together and splinters away those precious memories).
Music soaks this book. Common words are replaced by their Italianate, musical equivalents - lente, subito - giving the writing a lush, alien tone. Distances are turned into "beats". Events "resolve". Music almost becomes an extra sense: things, people, ways are found and described through their tunes - a stall in a crowded market, rare treasure in the abandoned tunnels under London, the way back home after Chimes has struck. Here was a real barrier for me: I hear music, I enjoy music, but I don't understand the technical language.
It was, then, an absolute pleasure as - in my mind - the book slowly came together, with the background of the boy Simon gradually filled in and the nature of his quest becoming clear. Quite simply, he needs to learn who he is, what he has lost - and what he might become. And that learning is accompanied by the reader's growing sense of what is going on, almost as if one is sharing in the recovery of memory, the gathering sense of purpose of the character. It's simply brilliant.
Simon's discovery of himself is catalysed by his relationship with, his discovery of, a friend who also comes out of mystery. That developing friendship is at the heart of the book and it is a joy to read.
I don't want to gush. The book has flaws. Following the mysterious, allusive opening there is a large infodump somewhere around the middle, almost as though Smaill lost her nerve slightly and worried about the reader getting into the book. Yes, as I've said, some may find it difficult but once - as it were - you begin to hum along with the main theme, then you won't need a great deal of extra prompting. It is also quite a short book. The ending is, perhaps, a bit rushed: but then, it's also refreshing to see a story like this not padded out to the traditional trilogy.
So - not perfect, but a beguiling and immersive world, real characters trapped by a horrid religion/ philosophy and a wonderful, inventive way of telling a story that is perhaps the book's greatest strength, something different and breathtaking to read.